September 29, 2016 - 6:02 AM
EDMONTON - An Alberta First Nation says court documents suggest political and industry pressure hustled approvals for an oilsands pipeline through regulators and reduced aboriginal consultation.
"Our concern is that this project was being pushed through too quickly and it would not meet the standards for consultation and review," said Eriel Deranger of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. "That's exactly what happened."
Officials with the Alberta Energy Regulator say repeated communications from political staff were attempts to understand a new approach to aboriginal consultation, not an attempt to hurry it along.
Earlier this month, the band filed a request with the Alberta Court of Appeal for a judicial review of consultations done ahead of approvals issued to TransCanada Corp. (TSX:TRP) for the Grand Rapids pipeline — a 900,000-barrel-a-day line from the oilsands to Hardisty, Alta. The band says it wasn't given enough input.
Court filings from the Alberta Energy Regulator have emerged that appear to back the band's allegation.
TransCanada applied for approvals in November 2013 and by March the following year had submitted records to the province's Aboriginal Consultation Office. The office assesses how much input is due First Nations and whether that requirement has been met.
The office had recently been created by the governing Progressive Conservatives and Grand Rapids was its first major file.
By April 2, an official from the Alberta Energy Regulator wrote the consultation office and said: "We've been directed to move the Grand Rapids pipeline project to a hearing ASAP."
TransCanada was already unhappy.
An April 8 email from the consultation office's director to the assistant deputy minister of Aboriginal Affairs said TransCanada officials had expressed concerns at a recent meeting.
"I think the frustration of the developing process is affecting some of these concerns," it read. "TransCanada's treatment of our staff ... has been minimally professional and on the border of bullying."
Another April 8 email from a different office staffer said TransCanada was repeatedly calling and meeting with the consultation office.
On April 14, an official with the regulator wrote: "The review and decision for the Grand Rapid pipeline project is being accelerated to attempt to allow construction in September 2014.
"The Grand Rapids pipeline project is of particular interest to ministers and senior officials from the (provincial government and the regulator)."
A day later, Grand Rapids had been bumped to the head of the line as a "priority file."
"This will not be the routine way of doing things going forward," said an email from the operations director. "This is an exception due to the higher level of interest in this project."
Another office manager expressed similar concerns.
"I share your concern about the 'urgent' review of this file ... but I think we will have to be flexible on this one given the level of political interest."
The office was worried the regulator was too focused on meeting TransCanada's request for a June hearing date.
"My concern is that AER does not speak for us in terms of timelines," said an email from the office director on April 16.
Shortly after, TransCanada officials met with the deputy minister of Aboriginal Affairs.
By May 8, the consultation office had filed what it called "a letter of adequacy to date" that acknowledged "the process is still evolving."
The office ultimately ruled the First Nation wasn't entitled to full consultation on Grand Rapids, even though the pipeline would cross the band's traditional territory.
A hearing was held in June and July of 2014. The Athabasca Chipewyan were granted standing, but pulled out over concerns they weren't given funding or time to consider proposal changes.
TransCanada says it provided the band with some funding, partly intended to help them review the project. At the time, Chief Allan Adam said TransCanada showed little interest in the band's concerns and was more concerned with how much it would cost to "buy us off."
The pipeline was approved in October 2014 and construction has begun. It is to go into service next year.
Bob Curran, a spokesman with the Alberta Energy Regulator, said in an email to The Canadian Press that proponents often request expedited hearings.
"It is not unusual for project proponents and hearing participants to request specific timelines of the AER, to accommodate for things like construction schedules, farm harvest, etc. regardless of the size and type of project," he wrote.
"The AER responds to all stakeholders, whether government, industry, or landowners, in the same manner with the same information."
Government and industry were trying to understand a new process, said another regulatory spokeswoman.
"There were questions seeking clarity from stakeholders," said Carrie Rosa in an email. "The AER responded to all stakeholders, whether government, industry, or landowners, in the same manner with the same information."
TransCanada spokesman Mark Cooper said the company was trying to get a sense of the regulatory timeline so that it could keep its commercial commitments.
"At no time did we suggest anything but a proper review of the Grand Rapids project and our indigenous engagement efforts."
TransCanada first met with the Athabasca Chipewyan in 2012 and made "made considerable efforts to engage" with the First Nation, Cooper said in an email. The band was given the same chances for "engagement" as other area First Nations, he said.
Alberta's NDP government declined a request for comment. It has begun reforming the Aboriginal Consultation Office, but it remains largely intact.
The band's request for a judicial review is to be heard in a Calgary court Nov. 8.
— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960
News from © The Canadian Press, 2016