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Pipeline expansion needs responsible, balanced approach: Sen. MacDonald and Sen. Black
December 14, 2016
OPINION
Image of Douglas Black
Douglas Black, Alberta
Image of Michael L. MacDonald
Michael L. MacDonald, Nova Scotia

Canada’s economic future is coming down the pipe and we can’t afford to miss it.

There’s no question finding new, more lucrative markets for Canadian crude oil – primarily from Alberta – is an economic imperative, but we have to make sure we get it right. Canada needs to balance the exploitation of its oil resources with the protection of its natural resources as well as with respect for its Indigenous peoples.

That’s why the Senate Committee on Transport and Communications is recommending the federal government develop a responsible strategy for the transport of crude oil in Canada. The committee’s recent report, Pipelines for Oil: Protecting Our Economy, Respecting Our Environment, is a blueprint for striking that essential balance.

Balancing those interests will be challenging, but it’s something Canadians and their governments can manage. Done right, it could give this country the opportunity to further develop the oil industry safely, responsibly and in a way that will benefit millions of Canadians, recognize Indigenous peoples’ rights and protect the country’s natural resources.

Without expanding its pipelines, Canada would be short-changing itself.

Right now, 97% of Canada’s oil exports go to the United States. The price of Canadian oil is significantly lower than it would be if we could tap into new markets around the world. We can’t sell our oil in Europe and Asia because we’re not able to get it to tidewater ports. Pipelines, such as the proposed Energy East project, would change that.

A modernization of the National Energy Board (NEB), the regulatory body that makes recommendations to the government about pipeline projects, must go hand in hand with the expansion of pipelines. As it is now, the NEB has an overly narrow mandate that makes it impossible to take into account environmental concerns or Indigenous interests.

The Senate’s transport committee believes it’s time to shift the emphasis for approving pipeline projects to the NEB and away from the federal cabinet. Right now, cabinet approval is required for every decision the board makes. The Senate committee believes the board should be empowered to make its decisions, but to allow for those decisions to be appealed to cabinet.

If the government put in place a more robust process, the public could have confidence in its decisions, knowing that evidence, not politics is dictating how Canada proceeds with pipeline expansions.

Another key part of modernizing the NEB would be the appointment of an Indigenous peoples’ representative to the board. That representative would give a voice to Indigenous peoples so their concerns about pipeline expansion projects would be heard. The representative should, naturally, be chosen in consultation with Indigenous communities.

The committee would also like to see the NEB develop a working document, updated annually, of best practices for building partnerships with Indigenous communities in the natural resources sector. Natural Resources Canada should hold an annual conference, involving Indigenous peoples, industry representatives and academics, to ensure the best practices document is updated regularly.

Generally, we would like to see the NEB modernized into a body that’s more inclusive, more effective and more meaningful. That should involve ensuring environmentalists – who have often been left on the outside of NEB proceedings looking in – have an opportunity to have their concerns heard by the board. Bring in the protesters and make use of the expertise they have.

In the transportation of crude oil, safety must always be top priority. One benefit of transporting oil by pipeline is that it means much less oil needs to be moved long distances by tanker or by train. No pipeline project should be approved if it poses a risk to the shoreline. The committee also recommends the Canadian Coast Guard’s capacity to deal with oil in water should be strengthened.

The committee also recommends that the NEB, as part of its hearings on Energy East, examine the Strait of Canso area in Nova Scotia, as an alternative endpoint instead of Saint John, N.B.

Make no mistake about it; Canada’s economic security in the 21st century is as tied to oil exports as it was at one time rooted in the fur trade, fisheries, timber and agriculture. That’s why the federal government should implement the committee’s recommendations.

Senator Michael L. MacDonald is the deputy chair of the Senate Committee on Transport and Communications, Senator Doug Black is an elected senator from Alberta and a member of the committee.