The latest chapter in the Trans Mountain pipeline saga will be written Friday as the National Energy Board releases the conditions for proceeding with the contentious project should the federal government choose to do so.
It comes nearly six months after a Federal Court of Appeal effectively halted construction of the $7.4-billion pipeline expansion, sending the NEB back to drawing board to assess the impact increased tanker traffic would have on marine life, including the endangered southern resident killer whales.
The taxpayer-owned pipeline project aims to ship more diluted bitumen from Alberta’s oilsands to tanker terminals in Burnaby, B.C., but it has been met with both political and environmental resistance.
The list of conditions and recommendations from the NEB would shape how the project is developed, but the decision on whether to proceed with it still rests with the federal government, which purchased the project last year for $4.5 billion.
Most experts anticipate the NEB will again recommend the federal government continue to pursue the project.
“The review will actually address the concerns that were addressed by the Federal Court of Appeal,” said Lori Williams, a political science professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary. “Albertans will take some encouragement from it.”
Examining project impacts
Among a list of draft conditions the regulator released in January is a plan for marine spill prevention, while also recommending potential limits on the number of whale watching boats in the area.
Warren Mabee, director of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy at Queen’s University, said the NEB’s final conclusions will be important for many people concerned about West Coast marine life.
“It’s a major point of concern for lots of people on the West Coast; we’re talking about people of all different stripes — Indigenous people, people in Vancouver,” Mabee said.
“So looking at what those impacts might look like … is really important. That’s critical to moving that project forward.”
The ruling at the Federal Court of Appeal last August determined the NEB’s project assessment was flawed and couldn’t be relied upon by the federal cabinet when it gave final approval to proceed in November 2016.
The NEB’s recommendations Friday stem from the court’s concerns with how the regulator initially dealt with potential environmental impacts from marine shipping, leading to a re-do of that work.
The board researched the topic extensively prior to its initial assessment and openly acknowledged increased marine traffic would have a “significant” impact on B.C.’s killer whale population.
But this was not considered when the NEB first approved the project. The NEB said this issue was outside of its scope and other government agencies already regulate marine traffic.
The court found the NEB should have included those environmental impacts in its decision. That way, the federal government would have had a clearer picture of all the pipeline’s implications.
The government instructed the board in September to complete another assessment, which also included three weeks set aside to receive oral traditional evidence from members of Indigenous communities in Alberta and B.C.
Among the draft recommendations issued in January are potential noise reduction targets for regularly operating ferries. Draft conditions included a requirement for Trans Mountain to file a marine mammal protection program with the NEB at least three months prior to commencing operations.
In addition to the NEB review, Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi ordered a new round of consultations with Indigenous communities to address the court’s concerns that wasn’t done adequately the first time.
There is no deadline for those consultations to wrap up.
However, the federal government says its consultation teams have met already with more than three-quarters of all Indigenous communities affected by the planned Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project.
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