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Expert panel calls for NEB to be completely dismantled

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by Russell Hixson

The National Energy Board (NEB) as we know it could be a thing of the past. A five-member expert panel that was tasked last year by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with analyzing the structure, mandate and role of the NEB has released its findings, calling for the regulator to be completely gutted.
Expert panel calls for NEB to be completely dismantled

The panel's report, which was submitted to Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, found that the NEB should be effectively replaced with two new entities, the Canadian Energy Information Agency (CEIA) and a new Canadian Energy Transmission Commission (CETC).

Another major change suggested moving the office of the CETC's board to Ottawa rather than Calgary, where the NEB is located. The CEIA would also be relocated to Ottawa in the future as well.

"We heard intense and near-unanimous criticism of the current requirement that board members reside in the Calgary area," the report said, adding some parties during the review stated having the NEB in the country's oil hub creates an appearance of bias. "We do agree entirely that Canada's energy transmission infrastructure regulator needs a stronger connection to the seat of the federal government."

However, some in the construction industry were left feeling confused and uneasy.

"This is definitely a concern," said Independent Contractors and Businesses Association president Chris Gardner.

His fear is that the changes will make a long, complex process even longer and more complex, which would have a chilling effect on the economy and investment. He noted that the approval process for the Site C Dam project took eight years and the process for the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion has been going on for around five years.

"We need to ensure that when projects are fairly and appropriately reviewed, and they have been approved, they move forward," he said. "And if not, we need to say 'no' and move on."

He added that moving the process closer to Ottawa was confusing as it implies that an agency in Vancouver or Regina or somewhere else wouldn't be equipped to make a decision the same way those physically closer to the federal government could.

The British Columbia Construction Association (BCCA) was less interested in the physical location of the regulator and more concerned with its work.

"Where the organization is based isn't necessarily the key to success," said BCCA president Chris Atchison.

"The work that it does, the people it employs, the processes, stakeholder engagement and quality of outcomes are what matters."

He added that Canadians live in a dispersed society where physical location isn't as important as it once was.

"That said, obviously Alberta and B.C. are geographically important in the national and international energy conversation, and the idea of beefing up the regional offices is a good one," he said.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, who held a news conference outside the legislature recently, expressed support for improving the process but took offence to relocating operations.

"Let me just say that moving the NEB to eastern Canada is dumb," Notley told reporters at the news conference. "We are absolutely opposed to that and it shouldn't happen...the idea that its geography is somehow negating the ability of the organization to conduct itself in an evidence- and science-based way is silliness."

The move would place the new entities close to other relevant government groups, the panel suggested.

"As the role of energy information provision migrates to the new Canadian Energy Information Agency, it would be prudent to locate that agency — as well as NEB staff today performing this function — proximate to partners in Statistics Canada, Natural Resources and Environment and Climate Change Canada, to the extent possible," reads the report.

The process itself would also change. The panel recommended there be a one-year process for officials to determine if a project fits with the country's interests. Then the two agencies would oversee a two-year hearing process.

The panel heard from Canadians in person and online and specifically sought the views of indigenous peoples. The panel travelled to 10 cities, from Vancouver to Yellowknife to Saint John. It heard presentations from close to 200 individuals and over 1,000 people attended the sessions in person. More than 200 written submissions were provided to the panel online.

Modernizing the NEB is part of the federal government's review of Canada's environmental assessment and regulatory processes.

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