Mackenzie pipeline panel blasts governments

The independent panel that reviewed the proposed Mackenzie Valley natural gas pipeline has blasted the federal and N.W.T. governments for rejecting many of its recommendations.

The independent panel that reviewed the proposed Mackenzie Valley natural gas pipeline has blasted the federal and N.W.T. governments for rejecting many of its recommendations on how to make the project successful.

The Joint Review Panel says all of its 176 recommendations must be followed to ensure the proposed 1,200-kilometre pipeline, which would run natural gas through the Northwest Territories to northern Alberta, benefits northerners while having a minimal impact on the environment.

Of those 176 recommendations, 115 were aimed at the federal and N.W.T. governments. But in an interim response released earlier this year, the two governments fully accepted only 10 of those recommendations.

"In the absence of implementation of its recommendations, and in particular those recommendations directed to the governments, the adverse impacts of the project could be significant and its contribution towards sustainability could be negative," Joint Review Panel chairman Robert Hornal wrote in an Oct. 4 letter to Industry Canada that was made public this week.

"In that event, the opportunity for the project to provide a foundation for a sustainable northern future would be lost."

May be panel's last word

The federally-appointed Joint Review Panel spent five years examining the $16.2-billion pipeline project's potential environmental and socio-economic impacts, as well as consulting concerned northerners and groups, before releasing its findings and recommendations in December 2009.

While the two governments fully accepted only 10 of the panel's recommendations, they conditionally accepted another 77 recommendations. However, the panel said that kind of conditional acceptance was often vague and non-committal.

Hornal's letter will likely be the Joint Review Panel's last word on the pipeline, concluding a five-year stage in an already long regulatory process.

"It's, in a way, a big day for the people of the North, one we've been waiting for a long time. We're now done with it, with the JRP, and we move forward," said Fred Carmichael, chairman of the Aboriginal Pipeline Group, which is part of the pipeline consortium led by Imperial Oil.

While the Aboriginal Pipeline Group and other proponents hoped the Joint Review Panel would soften its recommendations, other groups applauded the panel's refusal to back down.

"This is a scathing indictment of government trying to get out of commitments that it's already made — not doing anything to really protect the people of the North, the environment. The Joint Review Panel's actually called them on it," said Kevin O'Reilly of Alternatives North, a Yellowknife-based social justice group.

Not being secretive: minister

In rejecting some of the panel's recommendations, the federal and N.W.T. governments have said some of those recommendations would constrain future development in the North — a point that has perplexed the panel and pipeline observers like O'Reilly.

"One of the key recommendations that the Joint Review Panel made was that there should be a resource revenue sharing arrangement in place before the project proceeds," O'Reilly said.

"Our territorial government actually has opposed that recommendation. I can't figure this out."

Neither government has publicly identified which of the panel's recommendations it accepted, rejected or needed modification. But N.W.T. cabinet minister Michael Miltenberger balked at the suggestion that the governments are being secretive.

"It's not being kept secret. There's a process that was agreed to from the start," Miltenberger said.

"It's not a 'public negotiation as we go' kind of process. The final piece of feedback has come from the JRP, and now the federal government [and] the territorial government are at work to see how we finalize the report."

Miltenberger said all will be revealed when the two governments issue their final response to the panel's report. He said he hopes it will be finished in about two weeks.

That response will be submitted to the National Energy Board, a federal energy regulator that is currently reviewing the Mackenzie pipeline proposal.