How to fix the NEB

The federal government is now accepting public comment on a report looking at how to modernize the National Energy Board. Many of the recommendations, if accepted would change in essence of the NEB. But Lesley Matthews says the most important problem with the NEB- public trust- hasn't been addressed.
The controversial nature of pipelines has helped erode public trust in the National Energy Board. But Lesley Matthews has an idea to fix it: clear policy. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Right now, Ottawa is accepting public comment on a set of recommendations to modernize the energy regulator. If accepted, those recommendations would fundamentally change the structure, mandate and governance of the NEB.

But Lesley Matthews sees some major missteps with those recommendations, particularly, a missed opportunity to repair the NEB's "tattered reputation." 

Lesley Matthews, principal at Polaris Solutions, argues the lack of public trust in the National Energy Board is the most important issue facing the energy regulator. (provided )

Matthews is principal at Polaris Solutions Inc., where she consults with mining and energy companies, and is also the author of a C.D. Howe Institute report called "How to Restore Public Trust and Credibility at the National Energy Board."

She says one of the regulator's major issues is the public perception of its relationship with the energy sector.

"I think that there are certain members of the public who view the National Energy Board as being in the pocket of industry, being a little bit too close to industry," she said. "So then, through that filter, they see decisions that the National Energy Board has made as being favourable to industry."

And Matthews says mounting criticism about the engergy regulator's dealings with landowners and indigenous people along proposed pipeline routes have contributed to that reputation.

No matter how it is redesigned, Matthews thinks the NEB is going to face challenges because of the divisive pipelines it's tasked with regulating.

But, she concedes, certain steps can help.

A boom stretches out to contain a pipeline leak on the Gleniffer reservoir near Innisfail, Alta., in 2012. (Canadian Press)

Most importantly, in Matthews' opinion, is setting up a policy framework to guide decision-makers on whether or not a major energy project is in the national interest.

"That would really set the signal for what are the type of projects that we think, as Canadians, are in the public or national interest," she said. "And from there, that sends a signal to the markets to bring those projects forward."

And while she acknowledges pipeline approvals would still seem political no matter how transparent the process, Matthews says, the only way to restore faith in the regulator is to have a clear regulatory framework.

"It works both ways," she said. "You have to be a credible regulator. You have to have that policy framework in place. The government has to support the regulator. But the public also has to be willing to engage and seek out views that might be different from their own."


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