Justin Trudeau promised to make reviews of oil-pipeline projects more credible. Then Jean Charest helped make a mess out of the review of Energy East.
Now, the country's pipeline regulator, the National Energy Board, has little choice but to kick out two of the three panelists who are supposed to review the controversial project.
On Monday, the Energy East hearings moved to Montreal, but lasted minutes. The hearing were suspended after protests. Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, who had been scheduled to address the panel, called it a "circus." But you have to suspect the NEB was happy to get a breather.
That's not because of the protests. Anyone could guess there'd be some kind of protest when the Energy East hearings moved to Montreal. And it's not because of the opposition, which now counts hundreds of Quebec municipalities, First Nations such as the Mohawks of Kanesatake, and a long list of environmental groups.
It's because of the thing no one expected: The NEB's commissioners, under high scrutiny, tripped over their own feet on the way to the hearing, knocking over their own credibility. To be fair, it would never have been quite such a klutzy stumble if it weren't for Mr. Charest.
The NEB's job is to provide an impartial review of the Energy East pipeline project, which would transport Alberta oil to Saint John. As pipelines become more controversial, NEB hearings, full of experts talking about routes and engineering and risks, have had to grapple more with dissatisfaction with the "public" part of the public-hearing process. Last year, the NEB decided to embark on a strategy of "engagement," notably in Quebec. This is where things started to go off the rails.
The NEB, for unfathomable reasons, didn't just send out the board's chair, Peter Watson, or ordinary NEB staff. They sent out two of the three board members lined up to sit on the panel reviewing Energy East, Jacques Gauthier and Lyne Mercier.
They contacted notables including Mr. Charest. The problem is that he was on the payroll of TransCanada Corp. as a consultant on the Energy East project. And it was Mr. Gauthier who e-mailed, asking to come by Mr. Charest's office for a cup of coffee and a chat.
Now, Mr. Charest never told the NEB he had been hired by TransCanada, according to an NEB spokesman. He should have. But the NEB panelist should have made sure there was no potential for conflict.
When the National Observer website initially reported on the meeting, the NEB told its reporter that Energy East was not discussed. But it was. The NEB later apologized and admitted Energy East was part of the discussion. Whoops. That looks bad. That's how we learned two of the three members of the impartial Energy East panel met with an Energy East consultant to talk about Energy East, behind closed doors.
TransCanada Corp. says it never asked Mr. Charest to raise Energy East with NEB members. The NEB notes its panelists met with pipeline opponents, too. But it doesn't make a difference. The panelists shouldn't have been doing that, either.
"When they said two commissioners were there, we said, listen, this is very weird," said Steven Guilbeault, senior director of environmental organization Equiterre. "They said, 'Oh, we don't want to talk about Energy East.' Guess what we talked about?"
Now it is a problem for the entire review process. And a political problem for Mr. Trudeau.
The Liberal Leader promised he'd make pipeline reviews more credible, to ensure promoters obtain the required "social licence." The full revamp is still to come, but his government promised an "interim" process for Energy East would be good enough. The NEB's missteps have raised questions anew. And brought back unpleasant memories.
Mr. Trudeau was forced to dump a senior campaign adviser, Dan Gagnier – a former chief of staff to Mr. Charest – late in the 2015 election campaign when it emerged Mr. Gagnier was advising TransCanada from the campaign plane. After Mr. Trudeau took office, his aides rebuffed efforts by Mr. Charest, though no longer on the TransCanada payroll, to set up a meeting with company officials. Unless the two panelist step aside, the credibility he promised will be in tatters before Energy East hearings even get off the ground in Quebec.