HANGZHOU, China — Justin Trudeau sidestepped a question Saturday when asked about concerns over the independence of the National Energy Board hearings into the Energy East oil pipeline project.
Hearings into the controversial project were suspended last week after the federal regulatory body received motions calling for the resignation of two panel members.
The motions were filed after a news report revealed the two members met in early 2015 with ex-Quebec premier Jean Charest, who was at the time a paid lobbyist for TransCanada, the company behind the project.
When asked directly about the controversy at a news conference in Hangzhou, China, Trudeau did not refer to the specific case and spoke in general terms about the hearings process.
The prime minister says his Liberal party vowed to establish clear processes to ensure Ottawa earns the public's trust for projects that will boost the economy and protect the environment.
Panel members are supposed to be independent as they oversee the public hearings and prepare a final report for Parliament on whether Ottawa should move forward with the project.
Protesters stormed a conference room last week in Montreal minutes before the public hearings were scheduled to begin, forcing the board to cancel the day's events.
For Trudeau's Liberals, the integrity of the National Energy Board is central to both its energy approach and its environmental approach.
"From the very beginning we have said that we understand that Canadians expect both environmental protection and economic development at the same time," Trudeau said when asked about the cancelled hearings and whether his government will take steps to address concerns about the integrity of the process.
"What we committed to do is establish clear processes whereby the public trust can be earned for energy projects or infrastructure projects that both will create growth and make sure that the environment was protected and that's exactly what we're committed to and that's exactly what we're working on."
Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre walked out of last week's hearings after anti-pipeline protesters began screaming and chanting.
Coderre, who opposes the pipeline, strongly suggested that the board's review process had the perception of bias and that TransCanada had failed to satisfy local concerns about safety and emergency preparedness plans in case of spills.
The 4,600-kilometre Energy East pipeline from Alberta to New Brunswick is facing a 27-month review process.
Trudeau has made combating climate change a central pillar of his new government.
Many environmental groups say no new oil pipelines can be approved if the Liberals are serious about meeting their objectives, particularly the ambitious global targets Trudeau helped champion in December at the Paris climate conference.
His government continues to send mixed messages, maintaining that expanded international market access for Canadian oil and gas is not at odds with the transition to a low-carbon economy.
Trudeau is on an eight-day visit to China to build business relations and to attend the G20 leaders' summit.
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