On September 9, public outcry about the NEB “Charest Affair” became too strong to resist, and the NEB announced that the Energy East hearings are adjourned, that all three panelists have voluntarily recused themselves, and the hearings will be reconvened once a new panel can be constituted. In addition, the the Chair and Vice-Chair are recusing themselves from administrative functions related to the Energy East process, and will not be involved in the selection of the new panel. For a recap of this unexpected turn of events, and the series of investigative reports which led to the exposure of the entire “Charest Affair” , go to the National Observer. See also the Environmental Defence blog (Sept 9) and the Energy Mix coverage here and here.
In mid-summer, WCR wrote: “Canada’s National Energy Board was served a legal notice on August 11, the latest fall-out from news reports in July which revealed that Jean Charest, former Premier of Quebec and a paid consultant to TransCanada at the time, met privately with NEB Board members to discuss the Energy East pipeline proposal. The panelists met privately with other registered intervenors, including the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal and Équiterre – a Quebec-based environmental group, despite NEB’s own rules that require it to review projects in public, keeping a full record of discussions, and to use a fair and transparent process. The revelations would not have come to light without the digging of a National Observer reporter and his Freedom of Information requests; the NEB has now apologized for the meetings and released some records and emails. According to a series of reports in the Globe and Mail in March 2016 (here and here) Jean Charest has also been investigated for his attempts to contact the Prime Minister’s Office about Energy East, but was cleared of breaking lobbying rules in March.
The NEB officials who conducted the “off-the-record” meetings are now panelists on the NEB hearings on Energy East, currently underway in New Brunswick . The legal letter sent on August 11 demands that the Energy East hearings be suspended; a new panel be struck to conduct hearings into the private meetings; and two senior members of the NEB ( the Chair and Vice-Chair) who both participated in the controversial meetings, must be excluded from any duties related to Energy East during the course of the investigation . The legal letter was sent on behalf of two Quebec advocacy groups: Stratégie Énergétiques and the Association Québécoise de la Lutte contre la Pollution Atmosphérique (AQPLA).
Reaction to the controversy is summarized in “Charest pipeline controversy flares as May calls for resignation from federal panel” in the National Observer (August 8). And Chantal Hebert sums it all up succinctly in “National Energy Board’s credibility as an independent agency at stake: Hébert” in the Toronto Star, (August 11). To date, the federal Minister of the Environment and Climate Change hasn’t addressed the NEB controversy directly, but urged Canadians to have confidence in the system during a news conference in Halifax in August.
In September, environmental groups, including Greenpeace Canada, the David Suzuki Foundation, the Association québécoise de lutte contre la pollution atmosphérique, Nature Québec, and the Council of Canadians sent a letter to the Minister of Natural Resources, demanding a suspension of hearings and an investigation into the NEB. (See a summary at the National Observer ) .
The National Energy Board controversy is part of the poisoned chalice passed down from the Stephen Harper government, which the current Liberal government is attempting to deal with through regulatory review. In June, the federal government announced a comprehensive review of environmental and regulatory processes – including “modernizing” the National Energy Board, and restoring protections in the Fisheries Act. On August 15, a second announcement described the creation of a four-member Expert Panel to undertake the review of federal environmental assessment processes, and stated that public consultation would begin in September. The Terms of Reference for the Panel are here ; the Review website is here.
In anticipation of the Review, the West Coast Environmental Law Research Foundation convened a Summit of Experts in May 2016, and in August, published an Executive Summary of the proceedings, setting out twelve “pillars” of a next-generation environmental assessment, based on the key principles discussed. Amongst the pillars: a call for recognition of the rights of Indigenous people, improved consultation and information flow to the public, and the consideration of the impact on Canada’s GHG reduction targets as agreed to in the Paris agreement.