The Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, whose 12 members own 119,000 kilometres of oil and natural gas pipelines across Canada, want Ottawa to put a new “national interest determination” before the technical environmental assessment of a specific project.

“Public confidence in (environmental assessments) has become impaired in part because broad public policy issues have not been addressed at the political level and cannot be addressed satisfactorily through project reviews,” says CEPA’s submission to the federal government’s expert panel review on environmental assessments.

CEPA is recommending a two-step regulatory approval process to handle some of the broader questions, such as “climate change, the need for new infrastructure, regional or cumulative social and economic impacts, overarching Indigenous issues and overall national energy policy,” says the submission, which was filed on December 22 but posted online this month.

The national interest determination, the first of two reviews, would “be a type of sustainability assessment or strategic level undertaking by the federal government that would gauge public policy considerations and consider whether the project is in the national interest — the question of ‘if’ the project should proceed,” it says.

If a project passes that test, a second review would look at the more local and specific environmental impacts of the project, or the ‘how’ of that project proceeding, the submission says.

“CEPA believes this proposed concept would set the foundation for increased public trust in the federal EA and (National Energy Board) review process,” it says.

Other groups involved in environmental assessments have voiced a similar interest in creating a new forum to address broad issues affecting energy, said Sonya Savage, CEPA’s senior director of policy and regulatory affairs.

“We need a place to debate and deal with the broad policy issues,” said Savage, who added some environmental groups are looking to strengthen existing legislation that allows for strategic environmental assessments. “They’re maybe not looking at it in quite the same process but they’re identifying the same problem.”

CEPA members began discussions on the concept this summer as it prepared its submission for the expert panel, she said.

Since then, the federal government has announced a pan-Canadian framework on climate change and other milestones on issues like reconciliation.

A national interest determination would still be useful despite large-scale political solutions because, as it stands, the regulatory process still requires specific projects to look at big issues like greenhouse gas emissions, said Savage.

“Those are decisions we think ought to made at a broader political level,” she said. “It’s very helpful to have the pan-Canadian framework, but there needs to be a determination of ‘does this fit?’ Because if you don’t make that make determination it’s going to be debated in project reviews and environmental assessments.

“Regulatory agencies are not equipped to make those decisions.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the Liberals inherited a broken federal regulatory system when faced with questions on pipelines during a Fredericton town hall Tuesday.

“That’s why we turned around and enhanced the process for pipeline approvals to make sure there’s more public input, there’s more engagement, there’s more rigour, there’s more science, and there’s an approach that can reassure Canadians that instead of being a cheerleader or booster for pipelines, that you have a government that’s a referee,” Trudeau said.

The Liberals are holding simultaneous reviews of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012, the National Energy Board Act, the Fisheries Act and the Navigation Protection Act — all legislation that play a role in how pipelines are regulated.

CEPA’s submission is part of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012 review.

Kinder Morgan’s $6.8-billion expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, which Ottawa approved in November, is subject to 17 legal challenges from environmentalists, First Nations and municipalities in British Columbia.

Enbridge Inc.’s Northern Gateway was rejected at the same time due to environmental concerns in B.C.’s north. The Federal Court of Appeal found that the National Energy Board failed in its duty to consult First Nations on the project as well.

TransCanada Corp.’s Energy East project, while still early in its regulatory process, has already been delayed by protests and conflict-of-interest issues between TransCanada and the NEB’s staff.

A November 2016 study by the Canada West Foundation and the University of Ottawa found that local issues — not broad topics like climate change — are usually the reason for opposition to large energy projects.

“While many commentators continue to assume that concerns about climate change drive local opposition, our research shows that this not the case,” says the Centre for Natural Resources Policy report.

Opposition more often centres on safety, the project’s need, the distribution of benefits and local environmental impacts like water contamination, it says.

A report by the National Post last year estimated that the combined value of 35 infrastructure projects that have recently been stalled or stopped reached $129 billion.

The expert panel on environmental assessments is due to write a recommendations report for Environment Minister Catherine McKenna by March 31.

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