OTTAWA — A controversial reform of how Ottawa approves energy projects that has drawn loud protests across Western Canada could also have profound implications for Manitoba, legislators argue.
The federal Liberals tabled Bill C-69 to add clarity and speed to how pipelines and hydro projects are assessed, but the Pallister government and Manitoba’s senators say it might have the opposite effect.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has argued the status quo around energy projects isn’t working, citing last-minute court rulings that have halted major projects, and rules for agencies like the National Energy Board that don’t align with environmental commitments and Indigenous rights.
He argues that a beefed-up assessment process will provide more certainty to companies and investors. Proponents argue these changes would have prevented the inadequate consultations that led to the Supreme Court halting the Trans Mountain expansion project last August in British Columbia.
But the bill has faced dozens of protests across Alberta and Saskatchewan, including one this past weekend that brought hundreds to Moosomin, Sask., alongside Tory Leader Andrew Scheer. They argue more onerous requirements will add to pipeline delays.
Bill C-69 has attracted far less attention in Manitoba, though it would change how Manitoba builds the transmission lines needed to offload with its costly hydro glut. It would decide which pipelines can cross through the province and, some argue, the future of a major flood-prevention project.
It's going to have an impact on the province; that's for sure," said Manitoba Sen. Raymonde Gagné. "I can tell people are nervous; I can see it.
Trudeau has tasked the Senate with fixing problems in the bill. The Free Press surveyed Manitoba’s six representatives in the Red Chamber on what the bill means for their province
A LACK OF CLARITY
In its December submission to the Senate committee, the Pallister government argued the bill could mean "unnecessary duplication, consultation fatigue or unwarranted resource demands" on both private firms and Manitoba Hydro.
The bill lets federal ministers decide which projects fall under Ottawa’s regulators, which the province argues could "overstep provincial jurisdiction over natural resources."
The bill requires environmental assessments occur at the starting phase of a project, in the hopes of preventing major issues emerging late in the process. But the province said that timeline could overlap or even interfere with provincial reviews.
Gagné said she can’t tell whether that’s the case, because the bill lacks precise timelines.
This government, when it comes to C-69, has to be more clear," she said. "I think the questions asked around this are legitimate.
Proponents of Bill C-69 have argued that putting consultations at the start of projects could avoid disputes borne out in Manitoba.
Almost a year ago, Premier Brian Pallister pulled the plug on a 2014 agreement with the Manitoba Metis Federation, which cut a $67.5-million deal to avoid the MMF launching land claims in environmental reviews.
The agreement sought to avoid Manitoba dealing with the first major interpretation of a 2016 Supreme Court ruling that affirmed Métis people’s constitutional rights; interpreting how that applies to land ownership in the Red River Valley would likely take years.
Sen. Marilou McPhedran said she’d vote for the bill in its current state, but would like to see its sustainability and social-justice provisions strengthened, which she admits are "highly unlikely."
Without clearly enshrined protections, she fears the bill won’t provide enough clarity to avoid disputes like the province’s spat with the MMF.
The loudest voices we're hearing right now oppose the aspects of Bill C-69 that I think make a great deal of sense and are needed, and move in the direction we need to move overall.
McPhedran said she sympathized with laid-off oil workers, and took note of valid concerns raised during yellow-vest protests in towns like Virden. But she suggested "fear-mongering" and corporate lobbyists are creating a "well-orchestrated pushback," which a lack of clarity from the government has only intensified.
She’s hoping the Senate hearings "separate the wheat from the chaff."
In December, Pallister claimed Bill C-69 would endanger Manitobans’ lives, by delaying or outright halting construction of the Interlake outlet channels meant to prevent a repeat of the region’s disastrous 2011 flood. Although not an energy project, large infrastructure builds prompt federal environmental assessments.
International Trade Diversification Minister Jim Carr, who used to oversee pipelines for the Liberals, responded that the project "has nothing to do with Bill C-69" because it’s already past its initial steps.
Still, the province has bemoaned having no formal confirmation that the project is in the clear, and Gagné said Ottawa ought to be more upfront about which projects fall under the scope of the bill.
"In C-69, we get the big picture, but we still don't have the details," Gagné said. From her reading, the projects approved under the existing regime won't be effected — but she doesn’t see a reason for Ottawa to not explicitly confirm this.
"It's part of co-operative federalism," she said.
Ottawa promised months ago to provide a "project list" for provinces to review. Manitoba’s submission argued that the clock is ticking, citing ambiguities like whether Ottawa could claim jurisdiction over a transmission line that sits solely within Manitoba but crosses over a federal waterway.
Conservative Sen. Don Plett has discussed the bill with Pallister, and is worried about the flood-channel project.
It's doesn't matter what province you're in, it’s a terrible piece of legislation," said Plett. "I’m fearful for my province.
A WIDE SCOPE
Beyond pipeline and hydro projects, Bill C-69 also touches on mines, nuclear energy and even ports.
The Western Grain Elevator Association, based in Winnipeg, has argued new rules on building marine infrastructure could imperil the Port of Vancouver’s efforts to expand. The port has neared capacity in recent years, contributing to a backlog in getting grain onto trains and boats.
Critics have berated the Liberals for tabling such wide-ranging legislation toward the end of Trudeau's mandate.
All three senators agreed with the premise of the bill: that Canada’s current process of evaluating megaprojects isn’t hitting the right balance between economic needs, the environment and Indigenous rights. Gagné and McPhedran, whom Trudeau appointed, are hopeful the bill will improve the situation. Plett, a Conservative, said it "is not going to fix any of those issues."
Plett and other senators have taken issue with a federal minister having an effective veto over more projects than current regulations allow.
Gagné and McPhedran both described that as a double-edged sword, one that can enhance accountability by naming someone as responsible for that call, but also risks Ottawa overstepping its jurisdiction.
Senate debates have gotten heated.
Some Tory senators have mulled stalling the bill until it dies at the expected summer election call. Plett said he’d rather his colleagues fix major issues in the legislation, but he’s not confident they’ll be able to on such a tight timeline.
Opponents have claimed the Liberals simply want to expose companies to so much litigation that pipelines never get built. Supporters have dismissed calls to have the Senate committee hold hearings across Canada, calling it a stalling tactic.
In Plett's estimation, the Liberals are "trying to kill any development anywhere in our country, period," though Liberals are quick to point out they are paying almost half the cost of the flood channels, and bought the Trans Mountain pipeline.
Sen. Patricia Bovey was not available for an interview, while Sen. Murray Sinclair’s office did not respond to interview requests.
Sen. Mary Jane McCallum sits on the committee studying the legislation but declined an interview, with her office saying she’ll shape her opinion through the ongoing hearings.
ON-LINE COMMENT: By: wfp-222569
At least two problems here:1.Bill C-69 represents another incremental step to Big Government. We already have three levels of government in Canada which is burdensome enough. Increasing the authority of the feds over resource decisions, a provincial responsibility, is counter-productive.
2.Canadians are concerned that, with the Liberals in power, political values will replace good old common sense in arriving at resource decisions. For proof of how far they would go, consider the ideologically based rules they tried to enforce for students applying for summer jobs. The provincial response makes sense. Bill C-69 should be delayed and not jammed through in the short time before the fall election.
Reply ·7 Likes