If you are Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, you want one thing from the National Energy Board and its review of the proposed Energy East pipeline: a little peace and quiet.
He might get a little more of that now that the NEB panellists reviewing Energy East have stepped down after embarrassing, and bungled, revelations that they discussed the pipeline privately with former Quebec premier Jean Charest while the latter was on the payroll of pipeline promoter TransCanada Corp. By stepping aside, the recusals might tamp down the noise. But the NEB has already given the PM a big headache.
Politicians usually expect NEB reviews to help keep the noise away from them, deflecting it to technical assessments and hearings. But the Energy East panel blew up.
Now the NEB has to put it back together, facing legal challenges and potential delays.
The Energy East review won't be over till 2018 – at least. But this fall, the PM must pick a delicate path through Canada's energy politics.
Mr. Trudeau's grand bargain on energy and the environment, a pledge to combine climate-change stewardship with getting oil to market, means he has effectively promised to both act on greenhouse-gas emissions and to approve at least one pipeline to bring Alberta oil to the ocean tankers.
A lot of Mr. Trudeau's politics ride on that plan, and it's a plan that is about to face critical tests.
The PM is supposed to hammer together a national greenhouse-gas-reduction policy with premiers at a meeting that presumably will be held before the next international climate-change summit in Marrakesh in mid-November.
Then he must decide in December whether to approve Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which would pump Alberta bitumen to tankers in Burnaby, B.C.
Mr. Trudeau's political balancing act depends on some tricky steps. He wants to keep green-leaning voters by working out a national emissions policy before he approves a pipeline.
Then he has to choose: Either he approves Kinder Morgan this year, which could cost seats in B.C., or he must eventually approve Energy East, which could cost seats in Quebec.
The last thing he needed amid all the energy-environment politics was a lot of loud crashing noises from the National Energy Board's review of Energy East. He didn't want the NEB sparking new concerns about whether pipeline reviews are biased, reviving questions about whether he's lived up to promises to make reviews credible.
He didn't want the NEB limiting his options on pipelines by stirring up more controversy in Quebec around Energy East, or by making mistakes that could cause long delays.
But it did.
That all stemmed from the fact that two members of the Energy East panel, taking part in an NEB outreach effort in Quebec, contacted Mr. Charest for a closed-door chat, including about the pipeline.
But Mr. Charest never mentioned he was being paid by TransCanada.
When the National Observer reported on the meeting, the NEB said Energy East wasn't discussed, but the board later revealed it was. On Friday, all three members of the panel recused themselves, and the NEB chair said he'll stay out of Energy East matters.
Now Ottawa has to appoint new NEB members.
Then the new panel has to decide if it can just pick up where the old one left off. If it says it can, it is likely to face a lot of court challenges, and one way or another, there might be substantial delays to the review. It could mean many months, maybe even a year, to a review that was supposed to be completed in March, 2018.
Because of the recusal, the NEB recommendation could come many months later – much closer to the October, 2019, election. And it's risky to court major controversy so close to a vote.
For Mr. Trudeau, that complicates a complicated political decision. He has worked to ensure he has pipeline options.
But now the NEB's missteps make it harder to predict whether the Energy East decision will come dangerously close to an election. That has to make it a little more likely the PM will approve the Kinder Morgan pipeline in Vancouver. His other option just became less predictable.