TransCanada Corp. received an angry reception in Montreal on Monday as protesters chanting anti-pipeline slogans shut down a scheduled regulatory hearing into its proposed $15.7-billion Energy East pipeline.
The company and its industry backers face major hurdles to win public acceptance in Quebec for the project that would deliver 1.1 million barrels per day of Western crude – much of it diluted bitumen from the oil sands – to refineries and an export terminal in Eastern Canada.
After four sessions in New Brunswick earlier this month, the environmental assessment panel was scheduled to commence several days of hearings in Montreal but cancelled the session before it began when a burly protester charged the hearing table and had to be restrained by several security guards.
The National Energy Board late Monday said it will postpone proceedings on Tuesday in light of the disruption. Critics in Quebec are complaining about pro-pipeline bias among panel members and urging the federal Liberal government to suspend the review.
The Energy East project has pitted some eastern politicians, aboriginal leaders and environmentalists against industry and government leaders in the West, who are eager to gain broader market access and international prices for crude exports.
While the federal government has jurisdiction over pipeline approvals, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has stressed the importance of resource projects winning social acceptance from the local citizens and First Nations.
Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, along with the mayor of Laval and other municipal representatives, walked out of the hearings Monday not long after the demonstrators charged in. Mr. Coderre was the first person scheduled to give testimony Monday but chose instead to leave, calling the protests a "masquerade."
He and other local mayors oppose the project. TransCanada has not been able to confirm what approach would be used for the pipeline to cross the Ottawa River, raising concerns about a potential spill upstream from the drinking water intake for Greater Montreal.
"There are too many problems we are witnessing to accept the project," Mr. Coderre told reporters after he decided to leave Monday's hearings.
"We're saying the project [TransCanada] presented is wrong, it's bad and we don't have the answers. And frankly, one of the main issues is contingency plans, everything regarding safety."
TransCanada spokesman Tim Duboyce said the company was eager to resume the review process.
"We have had and continue to have a positive dialogue with Quebeckers on Energy East," he said in an e-mailed statement. "Listening, earning trust and dealing with the public's concerns will help us build and operate a safe pipeline."
Mr. Duboyce noted that Quebec business and labour leaders have endorsed the project, which the company says will generate 3,100 direct and indirect jobs in the province during its construction. Members of Quebec construction unions demonstrated in support of the pipeline outside the building where the hearing was to be held.
Former New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna said Monday's protest and previous opposition from Mr. Coderre suggest the project's critics are uninterested in evidence about safety measures that would be presented at the hearings.
"Before the evidence is even submitted, they say they will not support it under any circumstances," said Mr. McKenna, now a deputy chairman at Toronto-Dominion Bank and a long-time Energy East ally. "This isn't about pipeline safety but about opposition to a carbon-based economy … The government shouldn't simply listen to the loudest voices."
Chiefs and elders from three Mohawk communities were also due to appear Monday but said afterward they were unsure whether they will participate in rescheduled hearings. The Mohawks complained the National Energy Board process is inadequate in dealing with their aboriginal rights, and accused the panel of being biased in favour of approving the project.
The federal agency is "trying to convince people that this is the right thing to do," Grand Chief Joe Norton, of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake, told a news conference. "Our primary goal is to ensure the safety of our land and our people."
Last week Mr. Coderre asked for the hearings to be suspended after media reports revealed that two of the three NEB commissioners overseeing the review process met with former Quebec premier Jean Charest, who was at the time paid as a consultant for TransCanada.
The commissioners met privately with a number of Quebec stakeholders – including business groups and environmentalists – last year as they prepared for the review. Numerous environmental groups have urged the federal government to suspend the hearings to deal with what they say is the perception of bias.
Mr. Duboyce acknowledged that Mr. Charest was being paid as a consultant to TransCanada at the time of the meeting but insisted he "was not asked to lobby or advocate on the project's behalf."