Prentice calls delay in MacKenzie valley pipeline review 'outrageous'Posted: July 20, 2009
Juliet O’Neill, July 20, 2009, Canwest News Service--Environment Minister Jim Prentice has condemned as “outrageous” the tripling of the time and cost to $18.6 million of an environmental review of the largest construction proposal in Canadian history — the Mackenzie Valley gas project.
At the same time, Prentice expressed excitement in an interview from Yellowknife, N.W.T., that the results of the review, an important milestone in the approval process, appears to be within sight.
The independent, quasi-judicial Joint Review Panel says it is simply taking the time necessary to produce a rigorous, unbiased review of the proposal to develop natural gas fields near the Beaufort Sea and build a 1,220-kilometre pipeline down the Mackenzie Valley in the Northwest Territories to Alberta.
Prentice said the seven-member panel, appointed by the then-Liberal government in the summer of 2004, has had ample time to do its work and he is riding herd to ensure they submit their overdue report by December — two years after the pipeline hearings ended. They have taking an “unreasonable” amount of time to write the report, he said.
While critical of the panel, Prentice expressed excitement about the prospect of the project going ahead before U.S. proposals for a pipeline through Alaska come on stream.
“In our country we’ve been working on this project for close to 40 years at this point, and we have never been as close as we are at this point,” he said.
Prentice, who has heard an array of complaints about the lengthy process, said he explored the legal options he had over the panel some time ago and found he was very restricted.
He considered firing the panel and starting over but ruled that out as “counterproductive.” Instead, he has been closely monitoring the pace of work and ensuring the panel has the writers and other resources to meet the December deadline.
Prentice has taken the Mackenzie Valley pipeline file with him through three cabinet posts — Indian and Northern Affairs, Industry and Environment.
He was commenting on the $18.6 million panel cost cited in 1,500 pages of documents released in response to an access to information request to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. Two thirds of the panel cost is paid by the private sector, the rest by the federal government.
The access request, which cost $2,500 to process, was made by Permafrost Media, an online subscription service established to monitor pipeline news. Editor Anne Cross has also petitioned the federal environment commissioner in the auditor-general’s office to look into spending and accounting controls on the panel.
When the panel was appointed in the summer of 2004, it was supposed to complete its work in about 16 months and cost about $6 million. The access documents indicate the review has mushroomed from 200 to 800 pages.
Brian Chambers, a spokesman for the panel, responded by saying they are simply taking the time necessary to produce a “thorough, rigorous, unbiased” review based on analysis of 115 days of hearings, 5,000 submissions and thousands of recommendations.
He said the review is commensurate with an environmental-impact statement by Imperial Oil and the other pipeline proponents which “required three years of work and considerable resources to complete” and required further information after it was given to the panel in 2004.
Chambers also said the panel is on target to submit a report by December. “They’re entirely focused on meeting that goal,” he said in an interview.
After the review is submitted, the government must respond and both the report and the response are to be submitted to the National Energy Board, which holds final hearings and has the authority to kill the project or recommend a go-ahead to the federal cabinet.
The federal cabinet can veto a go-ahead but cannot overturn a rejection by the board. Prentice said the board’s work would take months, not years.
Prentice is in negotiations with the proponents about a federal stake in the project, which he hopes to conclude by the end of the year, but says those discussions cannot be completed while the environmental assessment remains unfinished.
“This is an important project to the country,” he said. “The completion of the Joint Review Panel environmental review process is a critical step in the whole procedure.”