Audit of National Energy Board cites poor tracking of pipeline safety compliance

There's fresh fuel for the raging national pipeline debate as a new audit has found the National Energy Board is failing to track pipeline approval conditions or follow up on compliance problems.

OTTAWA — There’s fresh fuel for the raging national pipeline debate as a new audit has found the National Energy Board is failing to track pipeline approval conditions or follow up on compliance problems.

The annual report from federal environment commissioner Julie Gelfand says the Calgary-based board isn’t adequately checking to ensure the safe operation of some 73,000 kilometres of existing oil and gas pipelines operated by about 100 companies.

The tabling of her report in Parliament on Tuesday comes as the newly returned House of Commons has begun an acrid debate over the proposed Energy East pipeline, just one of several contested projects aiming to get Alberta crude to tidewater for export.

Gelfand, in prepared speaking notes, observed that a new Pipeline Safety Act comes into force this June and she says the energy board “needs to do more to keep pace with the rapidly changing context in which it is operating.”

Her audit found that the board also needs to do more to inform the public about company compliance with pipeline approval conditions.

“Our audit concluded that the board did not adequately track companies’ implementation of pipeline approval conditions and that it was not consistently following up on company deficiencies,” Gelfand said in her remarks.

“We found that the board’s tracking systems were outdated and inefficient.”

The audit checked 49 cases and found 24 in which key documentation was missing, inaccurate or lacked an analysis or conclusion about whether conditions had been met.

Last week, municipal leaders from more than 80 Montreal-area communities publicly opposed the proposed construction of the Energy East pipeline that would carry Alberta and Saskatchewan bitumen to ports and refineries in New Brunswick. Their opposition set off a firestorm in western Canada, which has seen sharp opposition to all new or expanded pipeline routes to tidewater.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met Tuesday morning with Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, a former Liberal cabinet minister who is the lead spokesman for the Quebec municipal leaders who oppose a pipeline traversing their communities.

Trudeau emerged from the meeting to say energy companies will get a chance to prove to cities and towns across the country that a project is in their best interests once the Liberal government revamps the review process.

“The responsibility of the federal government is to establish a clear process whereby people can evaluate the projects in a rigorous and open manner,” Trudeau said in Montreal.

The report Tuesday from the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development notes that federally regulated pipelines moved about $162 billion worth of oil and gas in 2014 to Canadian and international markets. It also noted that several proposed new pipelines, if all approved, would nearly double existing pipeline capacity by 2020, while investing about $25 billion in project development.

Gelfand’s report says the energy board needs to do more to recruit and retain specialists — a task that may be made easier given current massive job losses in the oil and gas sector due to plunging world oil prices.

The Liberal government has said it plans to beef up the environmental assessment of major mega-projects, with reports Tuesday suggesting it will add an evaluation of the impact on greenhouse gas emissions to the criteria.

Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr has repeatedly stressed that more consultations, particularly with First Nations, are required by the board to galvanize broad public approval of pipeline projects.

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