Panel spars with feds over confidentiality

The panel that reviewed the environmental and socio-economic effects of the Mackenzie natural gas pipeline refuses to discuss its recommendations with Ottawa behind closed doors, according to missives between the two sides.

CALGARY — The panel that reviewed the environmental and socio-economic effects of the Mackenzie natural gas pipeline refuses to discuss its recommendations with Ottawa behind closed doors, according to missives between the two sides.

Letters exchanged between the Joint Review Panel’s chair and a federal official suggest the two sides are at odds over whether so-called “consult to modify” talks should be kept confidential.

“In the panel’s view, to do so would be a fundamental breach of the basic principles that the panel’s review process is to be open and transparent and that the panel is to be accountable to the public at large and in particular the parties to its review,” Robert Hornal, chair of the JRP, wrote in a letter last week obtained by The Canadian Press.

In December, the federally appointed, independent JRP handed down a lengthy report containing 176 recommendations, which were the culmination of several years of work. Environmentalists praised the panel for conducting a thorough, transparent review, though others complained the process took much too long.

Stephen Hazell, who worked on behalf of the environmental group Sierra Club throughout the process, said the panel did a “sensational job” in its review, which looked at anything from the project’s impact on local wildlife to its wider climate change implications.

“The panel has been open in all of its dealings in support of its decision making over the past number of years now. Why should this aspect of it be secret?” he said.

“It’s really puzzling why the federal government is bound and determined to keep their interim decisions secret.

“I just don’t get it.”

The panel’s nearly 700-page report is not binding, but it stressed the pipeline would only be beneficial to the people of the North if all of its recommendations are adopted.

The JRP’s recommendations, and the government’s formal response to them, will be taken into account when the National Energy Board makes its final decision on whether the pipeline should go ahead. That decision is expected to be announced this month.

The government can accept, reject or modify recommendations that apply to it. But if it chooses the latter two options, it is required by law to consult with the JRP first. But legislation does not set out how these talks ought to take place, or whether they must be public or private.

The National Energy Board completed its own consult-to-modify discussions with the JRP in writing, and entirely on the public record.

On August 13, France Pegeot, assistant deputy minister for the Mackenzie Gas Project, wrote a letter to the JRP with a draft response attached from the federal and Northwest Territories governments.

In the letter — posted on the website of the Mackenzie Gas Project Office, which is part of Environment Canada — she requested those documents, and the JRP’s feedback to them, be kept in the “strictest of confidence.”

In his response nearly two weeks later, the JRP’s Hornal said the panel would not review the government’s draft response if it won’t be made public.

“Until the response is finalized and approved, it is not a public document,” Environment Canada spokesman Henry Lau said in an email.

“We are surprised that the panel has decided to decline our request for a consultation.”

Pegeot replied to Hornal last Wednesday, assuring the panel that its response will be made public once key decisions are made.

“While we agree with and acknowledge the principles of openness and transparency during an environmental impact review, the public hearing phase of the process is now complete,” she wrote.

Legislation does not contemplate “third-party involvement” during the consult-to-modify process, but rather consultation solely between the panel and government.

Hornal’s latest response, on Friday, said the panel has never asked for “third-party involvement” in the process.

“The panel’s position is simply that any process between itself and the governments must not be confidential. Any document exchanged between the governments and the panel must be available to the parties to the panel’s review,” he wrote, reiterating the JRP’s refusal to hold confidential discussions.

Pegeot had said she expected the panel’s response by Tuesday, but Hornal said that would be impossible.

The Mackenzie Gas Project has been mired in regulatory wrangling, delays and budget overruns for years.

It contemplates a 1,220-kilometre pipeline to transport natural gas from the Mackenzie Delta in the Northwest Territories to the Alberta boundary.

Even if the National Energy Board gives it the thumbs up this month, the project’s lead partner, Imperial Oil Ltd. (TSX:IMO) has said the pipeline would start up in 2018 at the earliest.

Many in the North have been eagerly awaiting this project for decades, which they say will bring a much-needed economic boost to the region.

“We would encourage these parties to resolve the matter quickly to avoid further delay to this important project,” said Bob Reid, president of the Aboriginal Pipeline Group, which has an equity stake in the pipeline.