HALIFAX, Nova Scotia — Prime Minister Jean Chretien has tainted a public review of the Sable gas project by cheerleading in favor of a pipeline through Quebec, says a major Nova Scotia environmental group.
“He had no business making those remarks at all,” Howard Epstein of the Ecology Action Centre said Monday after asking a panel that began hearings into the megaproject to declare itself null.
He said there’s a public perception that Chretien prefers a Quebec pipeline proposal over one that would pipe Sable gas from under the ocean to New England by way of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
“The public should not be left with the impression that the fix is in,” said Epstein. “This is a classic case of political interference with what should be an arm’s-length process.”
Chretien said last year he liked a proposal by a group known as TransQuebec and Maritimes.
That plan, by Gaz Metropolitain of Montreal and TransCanada PipeLines of Calgary, was filed too late to be heard at these hearings into the $3 billion Sable development.
But TransQuebec will appear at the hearings and try to persuade the five-member panel to hear its rival pitch at a later time.
The joint panel, representing the National Energy Board and other regulators, is to hear a mountain of evidence from people for and against the Sable project.
The project, as it stands, includes plans for a pipeline into Maine by Maritimes and Northeast Pipelines.
The Sable companies contacted Chretien’s office after his remarks last year and asked him to clarify them. They feel confident the panel’s rulings — on everything from the whole project’s fate to pipeline tolls — will be made impartially, said Graeme Connell, a spokesman for the companies.
“We received assurances that this project will be discussed on its economic merits,” Connell said.
Epstein said Chretien’s efforts to erase his statement of favoritism don’t wash. The panel may not be influenced by him, but news reports about the comments created a public perception that he wields influence.
“Once he opens his mouth the horse is out of the barn,” Epstein said. “It’s too late to rectify. The process has been tainted.”
The Ecology Action Centre is looking for a loophole to quash the whole gas proposal, at least in its current form. The group has environmental worries, but also believes Nova Scotia cut a rotten deal.
Epstein said there are only a few hundred direct jobs from it and the royalty agreement stinks.
“If this gas were coming out of the ground in Alberta or B.C. [British Columbia], we would be making two, three, four times as much revenue,” he said. “I think our province was taken. We have very little experience with oil and gas here and we didn’t do a good deal.”
The province expects to reap about $3.5 billion in royalties over the project’s 25-year life. Critics have said the Liberals blundered by tying royalties to Sable profits, rather than to volume of gas produced.
Panel chairman Robert Fournier would not comment on the motion to quash the hearings.
The panel spent Monday taking a roll call of groups and companies that want to participate in the wide-ranging hearings and listening to preliminary motions.
One group suggested some panel members might be in a conflict of interest.
One of them, Kenneth Vollman, worked for Mobil Oil in the 1960s and ’70s. Another, Anita Cote-Verhaaf, worked for Gaz Metropolitain in the 1980s.