Prime Minister Stephen Harper's ringing enthusiasm for the Energy East pipeline is raising concerns about the integrity of the review process that his government must conduct to ensure the project does not pose an undue environmental or safety risk.
In Saint John on Thursday, Mr. Harper joined Premier David Alward and Arthur Irving at the Irving refinery for a photo op and apparent endorsement of the $12-billion proposal, in which TransCanada plans to ship crude from Alberta to Quebec and New Brunswick for use in eastern refineries and for export. If the project wins approval, TransCanada will convert existing natural-gas pipeline capacity to oil from Alberta through Ontario, and build a new line in Quebec and New Brunswick.
While noting that government was not a proponent, the Prime Minister nonetheless described the pipeline as a "pan-Canadian" project that is "very very exciting" and will create jobs "that will benefit the entire country."
Environmentalists and First Nations groups – who have yet to be consulted on the project – questioned Friday whether Mr. Harper's government can be both an enthusiastic supporter of the Energy East project and an impartial arbiter of whether its benefits outweigh any risks.
"I think he's pushing the positive part of it and not looking at the negative part of it," said Chief Joanna Bernard of Madawaska Maliseet First Nation. "We always feel the fix is in, but if we truly feel that this is not good and there is no way we can do it safely, then we're going to be all against it."
Ms. Bernard said New Brunswick is desperate for the kind of jobs and economic development that the politicians and proponents promise the pipeline will bring, but that aboriginal communities won't accept development that poses an undue environmental risk and need to be full partners.
Under legislation passed last year, Ottawa overhauled the environmental review process to impose strict deadlines, reduce the assessment of potential impacts on rivers and streams, and limit the ability of critics to participate in hearings. It also took final decision-making power out of the hands of the National Energy Board and placed in the hands of cabinet.
There are now four major oil pipeline projects either under review or being proposed: TransCanada's Energy East; the Northern Gateway from Alberta to Kitimat, B.C., for which hearings have concluded; the TransMountain expansion from Alberta to Vancouver, which has yet to formally apply for approval; and Enbridge's reversal of its Line 9 between Quebec and Ontario, which would bring Western oil to Montreal.
Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver has promised the Energy East project, like the rest, will receive an "independent, science-based environmental and regulatory review," and will only be allowed to proceed if it can be done safely.
In an e-mail, Andrew MacDougall, the Prime Minister's director of communications, said Mr. Harper has made it clear that the government is not a proponent of the Energy East proposal and that "all projects are subject to strict reviews."
However, New Democratic Party MP Peter Julian said the Harper government has undermined public confidence in the review process by stripping away protections. Mr. Julian said there may be merit in a pipeline that brings Western Canadian oil to Eastern consumers, but said the review process is now so tainted that it will be hard for TransCanada to win public confidence or support.
Many environmentalists are also deeply skeptical of the process.
"We would have hoped for a fair, arm's-length evaluation," said Gretchen Fitzgerald, executive director of the Sierra Club's Atlantic chapter. "But we've already seen so much grandstanding and flag-waving from the Prime Minister and Joe Oliver that this really does call that into question."
Her group opposes any pipeline project that would lead to expansion of the oil sands production and the resulting increase in greenhouse-gas emissions.