After a series of perceived insults against Alberta and its oilpatch from Ottawa, the governing Liberals appear to have avoided another dustup by proposing to keep the National Energy Board in Calgary.
An expert panel on modernizing the regulator had riled political and business leaders in Alberta with a recommendation to move parts of the National Energy Board (NEB) to Ottawa.
The panel, which didn’t hold public engagement sessions in Calgary, cited criticisms that having the NEB headquartered in the city sets the stage for “undue influence” and could “erode” the regulator’s independence.
The federal government appears to have rejected the recommendation, which triggered opposition in Alberta over the perceived implication that NEB staffers in Calgary are biased in favour of the energy industry because of where they work.
Ottawa’s discussion paper on improving environmental and regulatory reviews, released last week, proposes to keep the NEB in Calgary, while eliminating a requirement that board members and hearing commissioners must live in the city.
“The federal government got the message that there was some pretty significant opposition to this move,” Adam Legge, chief executive of the Calgary Chamber, said in an interview.
Some of Alberta’s top politicians and business groups took aim at the expert panel’s call to move swaths of the NEB to the national capital, including the board of directors, staff who oversee energy information and part of the office that looks after government co-ordination.
Even Kent Hehr, the lone Calgarian in Justin Trudeau’s Liberal cabinet, pushed back against the proposal, arguing the city has “a long line of expertise and talent,” and that the NEB’s analyses of energy projects from its Calgary offices are “comprehensive.”
The discussion paper, which also calls for a single agency to oversee environmental assessments, outlines Ottawa’s proposals for regulatory oversight of new energy projects ahead of final changes expected this fall.
“Our experts are here in Alberta, and we know the most about energy, so it seems ridiculous to not have the office here in Alberta,” Energy Minister Marg McCuaig-Boyd said Tuesday.
Mary Moran, the chief executive of Calgary Economic Development, said the proposal to retain the NEB, if implemented, could begin assuaging concerns over a series of perceived slights against Alberta and its energy industry from Ottawa.
In January, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told an Ontario audience that while “we can’t shut down the oilsands tomorrow,” he insisted “we need to phase them out.”
Ottawa’s new infrastructure bank, seeded with $35 billion in cash and loans to attract private investment and finance new projects, went to the financial headquarters of Toronto, instead of Calgary.
On Canada Day, two days after the discussion paper was released, Trudeau attracted a social media firestorm for failing to mention Alberta in a speech that listed every other province and territory, though he later apologized for the mistake.
Even if Ottawa retains the NEB in Calgary, Moran said she’s looking for more support from Ottawa, including efforts to ensure the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion moves ahead, despite opposition from B.C.’s incoming NDP government.
“Having dealt with the federal government on many of these issues, including trying to get the infrastructure bank here, I think we have a bit more work to do with respect to educating them on what’s going on,” Moran said.
“But I think they’ve shown they’re serious about the energy industry.”
Legge said the perception that Alberta is consistently slighted by Ottawa “is in our DNA,” but he said the facts don’t support this view, noting the province has attracted strong support from the federal government, including the approval of two pipelines.
Natural Resources Canada said Tuesday that while it considers maintaining the energy regulator in Calgary, there may be ways to increase its presence in regions across the country “in areas where the organization is overseeing different activities.”
The NEB opened offices in Vancouver and Montreal in 2015 to more quickly respond to events requiring its attention while building stronger relationships with communities, landowners and Indigenous groups.
Natural Resources Canada said it also wants the NEB to attract “greater diversity and regional representation” to its board, which currently requires that its members live in the Calgary area.
“It probably does make sense to change the residency requirement of the board members, but obviously the National Energy Board needs to stay in Calgary,” Mayor Naheed Nenshi told reporters.