After hearing a barrage of criticism from municipal officials across Canada, the National Energy Board has decided to review how much pipeline emergency response information can be withheld from the public by energy companies.
In a speech Monday to the Vancouver Board of Trade, board chair and chief executive officer Peter Watson said he has launched a review and public consultation process in response to complaints he's been hearing nationally, and most recently in Metro Vancouver, where several mayors took him to task last Friday.
"During my discussions with mayors across Canada, I have found that nearly all of them have major concerns about what they see as a lack of transparency regarding emergency management information from pipeline companies the NEB regulates," Mr. Watson said.
"To tell you the truth, I haven't been happy with the amount of emergency response information that pipeline companies or the NEB has been sharing with the public," he said. "In the spirit of openness and transparency, I have decided that the NEB needs to open up this important discussion to all Canadians."
He said the NEB will be accepting public comment until June 25. Then the agency "will respond in meaningful and measured way," to the concerns expressed.
Pipeline companies have been withholding details on their emergency response plans citing commercial and security reasons. But critics, especially in British Columbia where Enbridge's Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline proposals are under scrutiny, say the public needs to know what the risks are and how pipeline companies plan to respond to accidents.
Mr. Watson hinted that he has some sympathy with those concerns.
"There may indeed be some specific information that should be kept confidential, but I believe that we have been too conservative in our approach to this issue to date," Mr. Watson said. "Our consultation needs to revisit this issue and determine what the public needs to know, to have confidence that these plans are comprehensive."
The review comes just three months after the board rejected a request by the B.C. government and the City of Vancouver that Kinder Morgan be required to release emergency management plans for its proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
Critics noted that while Kinder Morgan was allowed to keep the Trans Mountain project information secret in Canada, the information was made available in the United States for the section of the proposed pipeline that would run through Washington State.
Mr. Watson is currently on a public engagement tour of Canada to bolster the board's image and improve dialogue with the regions.
"Now depending on whom you talk to, company emergency management information should be kept confidential – or it should be made widely available to the public," he said. "In the spirit of openness and transparency, I have decided that the NEB needs to open up the important discussion to all Canadians."
But Sven Biggs, a campaign organizer for ForestEthics Advocacy, said the review isn't adequate.
"I think ultimately what … Canadians want is access to the decisions about whether or not projects like Kinder Morgan are going to get built. What we heard today is we're going to get access to a process to decide whether or not we're going to get more access to information that the oil companies already have," he said.
Mr. Biggs said he has no confidence in the National Energy Board and urged Canadians to make the pipeline proposals into political issues.
"The NEB has never said no to a pipeline," he said. "It's going to be up to Canadians to stand up and force our political leaders to do the right thing because the NEB, on its own, won't do it."