08/11/2015 17:27 EDT | Updated 08/11/2016 01:12 EDT

A look at environmental review changes that are source of campaign contention

CALGARY — The notion that Canada's environmental oversight is lacking and pipelines are being stalled as a result has been getting a lot of airtime during the election campaign — and experts are, predictably, divided over whether that is indeed the case.

At last week's Maclean's debate, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said the Alberta-to-New Brunswick Energy East pipeline proposal could be a "win-win-win" for Canada: a boost for producers' bottom lines, government revenues and jobs.

"But here's the rub," he said. "(Conservative Leader Stephen) Harper has gotten the balance all wrong." He cited a "gutting" of environmental laws as one example of that.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, meanwhile, accused the Conservatives of making Canada's oilsands "the scapegoat around the world for climate change" through "lack of leadership" on that file.

The leaders did not get into the nitty gritty of the federal environmental process to review major resource projects.

The Conservatives made big changes in 2012, streamlining the process into "one project, one review," setting time limits for hearings and assessments and limiting who can participate.

It's the third point — that the National Energy Board must determine participants are "directly affected" by a project or have "relevant information and expertise" — that has been particularly contentious, especially in reviews over impending hearings for TransCanada's (TSX:TRP) Energy East proposal and those underway for Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain expansion to the Vancouver area.

The move "unjustifiably excludes" people with concerns, said George Hoberg, a professor of energy policy at the University of British Columbia.

"As a result, it undermines the integrity of the process and the legitimacy of the process. It contributes to that social licence problem that Trudeau and Mulcair emphasized so strongly in the debate."

But the Canada West Foundation's Trevor McLeod can see why the Conservatives deemed the changes necessary.

"To some extent, those changes were the result of a system that's overburdened and, frankly, a bit of a result of environmental groups overwhelming that system," he said.

"Somehow you have to find the right balance in the system and this was the government's attempt to find the balance."

In its reviews, the National Energy Board looks at the greenhouse gas emissions of pipelines themselves — which are negligible — but not at the climate impact from the increased oilsands development the projects may encourage.

Hoberg said that's another "terrible flaw" with the way the regulatory system works.

Though he's concerned about shortcomings in the NEB process, Hoberg said the bigger issue is the lack of a wider, more strategic approach to Canada's climate policy. Environmental groups have been using the regulatory process for pipelines to push for greater action on climate change.

"That's why we're so obsessed with the NEB process — that we lack that broader discussion," said Hoberg.

Roland Priddle, who led the NEB from 1986 until 1997, said it's "completely inappropriate" for the NEB to look at upstream climate impacts and takes no issue with the 2012 changes.

Since his time at the NEB, Priddle has been a witness in proceedings on behalf of industry applicants. He's worked on Enbridge Inc.'s (TSX:ENB) Northern Gateway proposal to the West Coast and has filed evidence for Energy East.

"The board does a very thorough job at looking at every environmental aspect of the pipeline itself and that's its responsibility. That's what the board was set up to deal with," he said.

Including climate, he said, is "an invitation to confuse and extend and complexify and increase the cost of the regulatory process. ... The board has consistently rejected that kind of thing and in my view, correctly."


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Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press