Chamber members grill federal minister on pipeline plans

President of the Treasury Board and Minister of Digital Government, Scott Brinson, takes questions during a Chamber of Commerce event on September 11, 2018. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

Federal minister Scott Brison came to Prince Albert Tuesday to make a major funding announcement and to speak to the city’s business community at a luncheon. And while the crowd was polite, they weren’t letting the minister go without thoroughly questioning him on pipeline construction and the perceived impact of federal regulations.

Brison, the President of the Treasury Board and Minister of Digital Government, spoke for 20 minutes about various economic topics, such as NAFTA, support for low-income children, pipelines and taxes, before accepting questions from the floor.

After telling Saskatchewan Rivers School Division board chair Barry Hollick that the idea of exempting school divisions from GST is something he would have to talk to caucus about, and after agreeing with a questioner who raised concerns about access to technology providing barriers in remote communities, at least three people in attendance grilled the minister on the federal Liberals’ stance on pipelines.

The first question asked the minister to comment on the Trans Mountain Pipeline (TMX) and whether Bill C-49 would prevent pipelines from being built.

The federal government purchased TMX from the private sector and promised to get it built. It’s since been delayed by a court decision that ruled consultations with Indigenous people incorrectly did not consider the impacts of increased tanker traffic the pipeline would cause.

“We believe it’s in the national interest for TMX to be built,” Brison said.

“Governments around the world take equity positions in infrastructure. (Pipelines) are no different from roads in connecting us to markets. If it’s appropriate for a government to own roads…why isn’t it appropriate for us to own pipelines?”

Brison said the Liberal government is “disappointed” in the court decision, but said his government is “determined” to get the TMX expansion built.

“When you look at the US…trade situation, it’s a reminder to us of our needs to diversify our markets, not just in energy, but in every sector. We totally get this,” he said.

“The court decision reflects on the lack of engagement of what was the previous government. We are going to get it right; we are going to do the right engagement and get it done.”

As for Bill C-49, Brison said there’s “nothing” in that bill that would prevent pipelines from being built.

“You can’t deal with pipelines without addressing environmental issues and without ensuring Indigenous Canadians, and all Canadians, have opportunities to benefit.”

Critics have raised the alarm, though, about Bill C-69, which would turn the NEB into the Canadian Energy Regulator and establish an impact assessment agency for new projects with a new scope and timelines. Saskatchewan’s Minister of Energy and Resources Bronwyn Eyre has called the bill an “existential threat” to the province’s competitiveness.

According to an article in the National Post, the bill seeks to find and a balance between development and environmental concerns. Critics are concerned that the bill does not say what types of projects fall under its jurisdiction. It has also not defined what constitutes a major project, as well as eliminating the standing test for who can participate in a project review.” Previously, only people directly impacted by projects could participate, but the new legislation would “increase engagement opportunities for all Canadians,” National Post reporter Geoffrey Morgan wrote.

The bill is now making its way through the Senate.

Brison’s response instigated another question from the Chamber of Commerce crowd.

“You’ve over-regulated,” the person said. “You’ve regulated it so much that corporations have said to you, point plank, take the business over, run it, and when you can actually figure out how to get it through, then maybe we’ll meet at the table. You’ve created a system that takes way too long to get it through.”

Brison rejected this claim. He argued that TMX was approved, and that it was interprovincial disputes with BC and a court ruling that is blocking the process.

“I would assert that it’s not an issue of overregulation because TMX was approved,” Brison said. “Market conditions for pipelines, by the way, were different when oil was over $100 a barrel.”

A second questioner took issue with the withdrawal of the Energy East project.

“If I was an outsider I would think we’re all baked in Canada, because how many billions do we spend buying Saudi oil, and yet we’re being forced to sell our oil at a discount. Why aren’t we getting pipelines?”

Again, Brison said it wasn’t regulation that was the issue.

“The same environmental regulatory framework applied to Energy East, but the proponent pulled it, and they cited—they were very clear—market conditions. It was not due to federal regulation.”

The person who challenged Brison scoffed.

“No, they said it was because of market conditions,” Brison said. “That can change.”