Op-ed: Bill C-69 can’t fix what’s really plaguing pipelines

The legislation is a false battleground allowing industry to vent their fears while making oversimplified claims and giving pipeline opponents false hope that the door to projects will be closed once and for all.

At the end of May, the Senate accepted a committee report with an enormous package of amendments to Bill C-69, which seeks to reform how major energy projects, including pipelines, are regulated. The bill is one of the most contentious, well-studied, and well-lobbied pieces of legislation in recent memory.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney—echoing industry concerns—has dubbed it the “No More Pipelines Act.” The oil and pipeline industries suggest the government must legislate the politics out of the pipeline approval process. This criticism is misplaced. Bill C-69 is a false battleground, and industries’ wishes are at odds with the complex economic and socio-political realities facing the oil and pipeline industries today.

Understanding why several major oil pipeline projects have been cancelled or significantly delayed requires careful attention to several coalescing factors. These outcomes are not simply about the National Energy Board (NEB) panel’s decision to include a greenhouse gas emissions assessment in the Energy East project, or about the federal government’s failure to adequately consult Indigenous peoples affected by the Northern Gateway pipeline, as the Senate committee heard. In both cases, there was a longer and more complex relationship between multiple stakeholder groups and the regulatory process that contributed to these projects’ demise. And it is highly unlikely that had Bill C-69 been in force during the Trans Mountain Expansion’s approval process that it would have made a difference one way or another in whether Kinder Morgan would ultimately follow through with the project.

Major linear infrastructure projects are host to several unique challenges. While the pipeline industry wants the politics removed from the approval process, pipelines are inherently political because they often run through dozens of Indigenous nations’ territories, municipalities, and multiple provinces. They involve a range of stakeholders often with competing and sometimes irreconcilable preferences. Oil pipelines in particular have attracted significant concerns about climate change, in addition to other issues such as impacts on marine environments. As the NEB expert panel concluded, the regulator has “fundamentally lost the confidence of many Canadians,” largely because of an inability to reconcile energy policy and climate change.

Bill C-69 comes after two expert panels, held between 2016 and 2017, to “modernize” the NEB and review the federal environmental assessment processes. While the panels consulted a wide range of stakeholders, the amendment process has been dominated by industry. For example, Indigenous groups made up the largest group of presenters to both expert panels, while industry constituted the largest stakeholder group at the Senate committee hearings, representing over 40 percent of the 275 witnesses.

Bill C-69 has become the focal point for the pipeline and oil industries to air a wide range of grievances. A coordinated effort between the oil and pipeline industry associations resulted in a suite of amendments that was supported by a range of industry actors and supporters. The time crunch facing the Senate committee led to many amendments proposed by the oil and pipeline industries being adopted. While Premier Kenney suggests the amended bill could help avoid a national unity crisis, environmental groups say the changes may undermine trust in the regulatory process, and some Indigenous observers suggest the amendments disrespect treaty rights.

So how should we understand all this furor about C-69? While there are several changes that Bill C-69 would make if passed into law, overall the bill means very little for determining whether pipelines will get built. It would also do very little to restore investment in the oilsands—a five-year downward trend driven by a wider range of conditions. Given the political economy of the oilsands, some argue it’s unlikely there will be another major oil pipeline proposal in Canada.

In short, Bill C-69 is a false battleground—it allows industry to vent their fears and concerns while making oversimplified claims and it gives oil pipeline opponents false hope that the door to pipeline projects will be closed once and for all. However, the most significant factors that will determine whether or not pipelines will be built remain largely beyond the oil and pipeline industries’ control. Although the amended bill is more favourable to industry, the politics of oil pipelines and the economics of the oilsands will continue to shape these industries’ future.

Amy Janzwood is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Toronto and a research associate at the Munk School’s environmental governance lab.

This piece was first published on June 6, 2019 and is republished with permission from The Hill Times. Since this piece was published, the House of Commons has rejected about half of the Senate’s amendments.