The National Energy Board will limit non-Indigenous witnesses to written evidence as it works to conclude a reconsideration of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion within the tight deadline set by the federal government.
In a hearing order released on Friday, the board said it will hold oral sessions starting in late November for Indigenous communities that have registered concerns about the marine impacts of the pipeline project. Other witnesses will have to file written evidence, although the National Energy Board (NEB) panel may decide to hold some hearings in January to allow cross-examination of some of those intervenors.
The board noted it approved 80 per cent of applicants who sought standing as intervenors – including the governments of Alberta and British Columbia – but turned down 25 people who were either not directly affected by the project or could not show relevant information or expertise.
It also urged intervenors to address their evidence to a narrow set of issues – such as current efforts to protect species at risk or recommendations for additional protective measures – that were not included in the original hearing, which concluded in 2015.
The panel has until Feb. 22 to provide a report to the government that would address deficiencies the Federal Court of Appeal pointed out when it quashed Ottawa’s approval of the project in late August. At the same time, Ottawa has relaunched consultations with Indigenous communities, which the appeal court concluded had been inadequate.
The appeal court decision halted construction on the project, which would triple the capacity of the oil pipeline from Edmonton to Vancouver harbour and allow Western Canadian crude to reach new Pacific Rim markets. A shortage of pipeline space has resulted in Canadian oil selling at steep discounts to global prices, with millions of dollars in revenue lost to the industry and governments every day.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has committed to get the Trans Mountain expansion project completed. To keep the project alive, his government bought the existing Trans Mountain pipeline from Kinder Morgan Canada Limited for $4.5-billion and is prepared to finance the construction.
Reuben George, manager of the Sacred Trust Initiative of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation mandated to oppose the pipeline expansion, said on Friday afternoon that he had not seen the NEB announcement. However, he said his community is prepared to participate in the reconsideration hearings.
“We have to sit down with them,” he said, referring to the energy board. “If we don’t, they can push it through.”
In addition to previous submissions, Mr. George said in an interview that the Sacred Trust had commissioned an air-quality and health study linked to the potential impact of an expanded pipeline.
The Alberta government said on Friday that it welcomed the NEB’s hearing blueprint.
“We’re pleased to see this process moving forward,” Mike McKinnon, a spokesperson for the Alberta energy ministry, said in a statement. “We will do whatever is necessary to get this pipeline built as we fight for good jobs and top dollar for our oil. As we’ve said before, we will hold the federal government’s feet to the fire if any key deadlines for this project slip.”
The B.C. government said on Friday through an environment ministry spokesperson that it would not have any immediate comment on the NEB’s announcement.
On marine impacts, the court ruled the NEB erred when it concluded it did not have jurisdiction over the increased shipping the expanded pipeline capacity would bring. As a result, the original NEB panel did not set out conditions to mitigate the marine impacts on coastlines and endangered species such as the local killer whale populations.
“The board is very clear that the entire record in the original proceeding stands, and [from the federal departments] they want only new information and updates to listed species protection etc.,” Robert Steedman, the NEB’s chief environment officer, said in an interview.
He said about a quarter of the original 534-page report delivered in May, 2016, dealt with marine issues and effects of increased tanker traffic. The board did conclude the increased shipping would have a significant impact on the killer whale populations, but did not recommend mitigation measures.