It is never acceptable for people to disrupt a public meeting, as a few screaming protesters did in Montreal on Monday during the National Energy Board's hearings into the Energy East pipeline. That the protesters forced the cancellations of the hearings for the day is even more galling.
But to dismiss the protesters' main contention – that the credibility of the NEB has been compromised – is self-defeating. The NEB has botched these hearings, perhaps beyond repair, and ignoring this fact will not somehow make it go away.
The problem dates back to last year, when two of the three commissioners overseeing the review of the Energy East pipeline met with former Quebec premier Jean Charest. Mr. Charest was under contract at the time as a lobbyist for TransCanada, the company that wants to build the ambitious project to bring Alberta crude oil to Saint John.
Caught red-handed, the NEB originally claimed that the commissioners had not discussed the pipeline with Mr. Charest. Then it admitted they had and apologized for being misleading, all the while claiming the commissioners were unaware Mr. Charest was a TransCanada lobbyist. Then it tried to downplay the fiasco by saying the commissioners had undertaken similar meetings with other pipeline stakeholders, including environmental groups, as they prepared for the current public hearings.
Its contradictory denials have only dug a deeper hole for the NEB. There is no evidence of unethical behaviour, but the perception is terrible. A poll taken by the CBC in March found that 50.5 per cent of respondents said they had little or no confidence in the NEB.
This is not good. Canada needs the Energy East pipeline. It can deliver Alberta crude oil safely to a deep-water port on the Atlantic and open new markets for an industry that is vital to our economy.
To see it stalled or cancelled not for evidence-based reasons but because of political outcry created by the NEB's mishandling of its own affairs would be a disaster. The only option now may be to ask the commissioners who met Mr. Charest to recuse themselves from the proceedings. If that is what it takes, that's what should happen. The NEB can no longer ignore this issue and hope it blows over.