CALGARY — The National Energy Board has thrown out nearly two years of decisions on the Energy East pipeline review in a move that deals a further blow to the project but doesn’t go far enough for its opponents.
The regulatory panel tasked with reviewing the $15.7-billion project said Friday that it had voided all decisions made by the previous panel, which stepped down last September after concerns about a potential conflict of interest.
The board said all hearing steps and related deadlines for the TransCanada (TSX:TRP) project no longer apply as it begins to determine a new list of issues, list of participants and new process for reviewing the application.
“After much thought and consideration, we feel that restarting the Energy East and Eastern Mainline hearings with a clean slate is the best course of action,” NEB spokesman Marc Drolet said in an email.
“We understand there have been process missteps in the past, and that our decision may be an inconvenience to some.”
The previous Energy East pipeline panel, which had been reviewing the project since TransCanada submitted its application in October 2014, stepped down after concerns were raised about a potential perception of bias after members met privately with Jean Charest while he was a paid TransCanada consultant.
A new panel was appointed earlier this month, with all three members committing not to speak with any members of the previous panel to avoid any real or perceived conflict of interest.
Much has changed in the pipeline world since the last panel stepped down, including federal approvals of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain and Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline projects, while the election and recent actions of U.S. President Donald Trump have opened the potential for TransCanada’s Keystone XL to go ahead.
“From the perspective of how much supply we have in the basin and how much potential pipeline capacity we have, things have changed quite dramatically,” said Jackie Forrest, vice-president of energy research at ARC Financial Corp.
She said there’s still the potential for Energy East to go ahead, even if there was excess capacity.
“That’s the old way of thinking, that supply must equal pipeline capacity. Really what Canadian industry needs is access to new markets,” Forrest said.
Wood Mackenzie senior analyst Afolabi Ogunnaike said while neither of TransCanada’s pipelines are guaranteed to go ahead, he only expects the company to build one.
“We think at best TransCanada is likely to build one, not both Energy East and Keystone XL,” said Ogunnaike. “No one wants to spend billions of dollars investing in a pipeline and have it run empty.”
TransCanada spokesman Tim Duboyce said they will be reviewing the NEB’s decision to understand its impact on the project and the company, but said the project is still important to provide domestic oil supplies to eastern refineries as well as improving market access. The company won’t be starting entirely from scratch in the process, with the NEB saying the company does not need to refile the more than 30,000-page application it submitted.
The new panel will, however, have to decide if the application is complete, and only then will the 21-month countdown start again.
Those who have already submitted an application to participate in the review process don’t need to reapply. The new panel will review all of the filed applications and release a new list of participants.
Environmental groups cheered the decision, but were quick to say any further hearings should be put on hold until the NEB completes its review of its pipeline assessment process.
“For the new review of Energy East to be credible, the process cannot be restarted until the reform of the National Energy Board and Canada’s environmental assessment laws is complete,” Environmental Defence’s Patrick DeRochie said in a statement.
“The federal government admitted that the current process is broken and appointed an expert panel to modernize the NEB.”
Natural Resources Minister spokesman Alexandre Deslongchamps said the review will be done under the existing regulatory framework, with the additional measures announced last January.
Those measures include deeper consultations with Indigenous peoples, expanded public input and an assessment of upstream greenhouse gas emissions associated with the project.
The review panel will examine a proposed 4,500-kilometre pipeline that would carry 1.1-million barrels of crude oil per day from Alberta and Saskatchewan to refineries in Eastern Canada and a marine terminal in New Brunswick.
The board says the previous panel’s decisions have also been rendered void for TransCanada’s 279-kilometre Eastern Mainline natural gas pipeline application, which was submitted along with Energy East because some existing gas pipeline will be converted to oil under the Energy East plan.