OTTAWA — The National Energy Board has less than six months to redo its environmental review of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, this time taking into account the impact of additional oil tanker traffic off the coast of British Columbia.
Three weeks after the Federal Court of Appeal overturned approval of the expansion project, Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi says the federal cabinet is giving the NEB 22 weeks to complete a thorough review of the environmental impact of additional oil tankers that would result from the additional flow of diluted bitumen from an expanded pipeline.
"We are confident that this plan will allow us to meet the high standards that Canadians expect when it comes to protecting the environment," Sohi said Friday.
The review will examine the impact on killer whales of the additional tankers — it's estimated the number of ships will go to about 35 a month from the current five.
Last month the appeal court quashed the NEB and cabinet blessing of the project, citing improper consultation with Indigenous communities and a lack of review of the marine shipping issue. The decision laid out some specific things Canada and the NEB must do if they want the pipeline green-lighted again.
"Obviously this decision was disappointing but by no means insurmountable," Sohi said.
He said a decision on whether or not to appeal has yet to be made but the government has already acted on steps to respond to the court decision without appealing.
Canada's plans to restart consultations with Indigenous communities will be announced shortly, he added. A source told The Canadian Press recently the government is looking at hiring a retired federal judge to help oversee those consultations with a view to ensuring they follow court-ordered processes exactly this time.
Sohi is also appointing a scientific technical adviser to the NEB review panel to help conduct the oil tanker review.
The expansion project features a second pipeline, roughly parallel to the existing one that runs between Edmonton and Burnaby, B.C. It would triple the total capacity but the new pipeline would carry only diluted bitumen for export to foreign refineries, while the existing one carries a number of products including refined oil and diluted bitumen.
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Sohi made the announcement in Halifax, where he is hosting G7 energy ministers. Their meeting comes after G7 environment ministers discussed issues including climate change earlier in the week.
Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said Friday the issue of expanding the pipeline was not raised at those meetings. However Canada has been heavily criticized by environment groups for approving the expanded pipeline, which they argue is incompatible with Canada's promise to cut greenhouse gas emissions and help slow global warming.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the cabinet argue Canada needs to continue to develop its resources even as it makes the slow transition to a greener, cleaner energy economy.
Canada issued cabinet approval for the expanded pipeline in 2016 but political opposition — particularly from the new NDP government in British Columbia, which doesn't want the pipeline — spooked investors from Kinder Morgan Canada enough that the company wanted to walk away from the project.
In May, Finance Minister Bill Morneau announced Canada would buy the existing pipeline from Kinder Morgan for $4.5 billion, expand it and then sell it back to a private buyer when the timing was right.
Kinder Morgan Canada spooked by political opposition
Conservative natural resources critic Shannon Stubbs was not appeased by Sohi's plan. Ordering the NEB to report back in just under six months is one thing, but the government put no timeline on when the Indigenous consultations will be completed, when cabinet might consider the project or when construction would be restarted.
"Today there are no timelines for shovels in the ground," she said.
On the other side of the equation, environment groups say the government is ordering the review assuming approval for the project will be reinstated no matter what the NEB finds.
Keith Stewart, an energy strategist with Greenpeace, said the government is treating the latest review as a "box-checking exercise," adding that isn't a true consultation process.