British Columbia’s highest court has told the provincial government to reconsider its environmental approval for the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and examine whether it needs to impose more conditions on the project after a challenge by a Vancouver-area First Nation.
The decision, issued by the B.C. Court of Appeal on Tuesday, stopped short of ripping up the province’s approval and concluded the government adequately consulted First Nations. It also stressed that the B.C. government does not have the power to impede construction of the pipeline. But the ruling found that because the provincial certificate was based on a National Energy Board review that was struck down by the courts, the provincial approval should be reconsidered.
The federal government, which now owns the pipeline, reapproved the project this summer based on a second review conducted by the national regulator.
The court rejected a claim from the Squamish Nation that the province had not sufficiently consulted with Indigenous groups before the pipeline’s environmental assessment certificate was approved by B.C.’s former Liberal government in early 2017. The government attached 37 conditions to the project, which covered a range of issues from dealing with wildlife during construction to oil spill cleanups. The issue is now in the hands of the NDP government, which was elected two years ago on a promise to oppose the pipeline.
The Federal Court of Appeal ruled earlier in September that six new challenges to the pipeline focused on complaints of inadequate consultation from Indigenous groups can proceed.
The expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, linking Alberta’s oil sands to ports in Metro Vancouver, has spent years going through environmental and regulatory approvals. The pipeline has become a central campaign issue in the federal election campaign.
Khelsilem, a councillor for the Squamish Nation near Vancouver, said the decision is a victory and creates an opportunity for Premier John Horgan’s government to reopen an assessment made by his predecessor. “Today represents a new opportunity for the government to step up and be leaders on this and set a new standard for this project,” the councillor said.
While Mr. Horgan’s New Democrats have been critical of the pipeline project, lawyers for the province’s attorney-general argued in court that the current government doesn’t want to reopen the environmental assessment. B.C.’s environment minister was not available for comment.
The court’s decision does not allow the B.C. government to prevent or impede the planned construction of the pipeline. The court’s decision allows for B.C.’s environmental certificate to remain in place until the province decides whether it would like to modify it.
In a statement, Trans Mountain said the decision means planning and construction on the pipeline will continue immediately. The company has announced plans to begin work as soon as this month along the pipeline’s planned route through British Columbia.
Martin Olszynski, who teaches law at the University of Calgary, said the province can set new conditions, but any that are too onerous would probably lead to an immediate constitutional challenge from the federal Crown corporation. “The conditions can’t amount to a frustration or prohibition that would impede the pipeline,” he said.
The pipeline is under federal jurisdiction because it crosses a provincial boundary. Prof. Olszynski said that B.C.’s environmental certificate is in a legal grey area and has been limited so far to issues narrowly within the province’s jurisdiction.
“The going legal theory is that the B.C. environmental assessment act isn’t entirely applicable to the pipeline. If it was used to delay, frustrate or stop the pipeline it would be deemed unconstitutional,” he said.
The B.C. government has insisted that it has been processing permit applications and other approvals as it would for any other project. B.C. Attorney-General David Eby has acknowledged that the province has no power to block or delay permits and would be sued if it tried.
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