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National Energy Board to Change How Spill Response Plans Are Made Public

Critic says it'll take much more to restore faith in regulator.

Jeremy Nuttall 13 Jan

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee's Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

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A spokesperson for Canada's energy regulator says it will change the way it oversees disclosure of emergency response plans for pipeline projects after hearing concerns from stakeholders across the country as well as the B.C. government.

But at least one critic says the National Energy Board will have to do much more to restore some Canadians' faith in the processes of the regulator, which has been accused in recent years of limiting public input and favouring industry.

"Based ‎on feedback from Canadians, we will be changing how emergency response plans are made publicly available," said NEB spokesperson Darin Barter on Tuesday. "That feedback includes what we heard from B.C."

Barter did not detail what specific changes will be made and said they would not affect projects currently in the NEB application stage, such as Kinder Morgan's proposed $6.8-billion expansion of its Trans Mountain pipeline.

The B.C. government announced its rejection of that expansion Monday, reasoning the company had not provided enough information about its spill prevention and response plans.

In its final submission to the NEB panel reviewing the Trans Mountain proposal, the province said it wanted detailed information on the emergency response planning for the existing pipeline to help it ensure there will be a timely and effective incident reaction.

Instead, Kinder Morgan submitted a "heavily redacted" emergency plan that did not help the province determine if the plan is adequate, the province said.

"This is about the test that would allow this pipeline to go forward," said B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak in a teleconference explaining the rejection to reporters Monday.

"We're saying that at this time in the NEB process, the [company has] not met it. It does not close the door on them meeting that test potentially in the future."

Public tour hears pipeline fears

The NEB's pledge to change its processes also follows the release of a report detailing the results of its recent "national engagement initiative" on how Canadians feel about pipelines.

The initiative toured the country and polled various pipeline stakeholders, such as First Nations and environmental groups, to find out how it can improve its processes.

The initiative found the disclosure of spill response plans was a top concern among those consulted, along with environmental protection and a desire for better two-way dialogue with industry and the regulator.

"Stakeholders want to be able to review industry emergency management plans, to understand what would happen in the event of an emergency, and apply their own knowledge of local resources, infrastructure and capacity to make plans better and more responsive," read the report.

The NEB's Barter said the people consulted on the tour were concerned about being protected in the event of an incident.

"If something happened in their backyard, for instance, [they're wondering] what's the plan to protect their property, the environment and just general public safety," Barter said. "That's what we heard."

The NEB said its national engagement initiative was meant to help the organization "adjust" its approach to communications and public engagement.

But the regulator's toughest critics may demand more than incremental changes or engagement tours.

For Kai Nagata of the Dogwood Initiative, an organization advocating for public control of natural resources, it will take the dismantling of the NEB's board of directors and starting over to restore his faith in the process.

Nagata refers to the board as the "zombie NEB" in reference to its alignment with the now defeated Harper government, pointing out five of its 14 members are Conservative Party donors.

He also stressed Peter Watson, who conducted the national engagement tour, was named Alberta's resource person of the year in 2011, an award given to those who work in the industry.

"Everybody knows they've never denied a pipeline and they were stacked by Stephen Harper," Nagata said of the NEB. "The perception that they are not independent of industry or the previous government is their biggest problem, and I think everything else is just window dressing."

Barter rejected that characterization, and said the regulator is making "real change" in how it conducts its business.

In a campaign pledge, Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to "put some teeth" back into the regulator.

Barter said the "new" NEB is engaging more with Aboriginal groups and making enforcement action public, among other initiatives.

"It's not window dressing," Barter said. "This is a new NEB, and this is where we're headed."  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy

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