IN THE NEWS ~ Environmental, First Nations groups question pipeline plan

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's ringing enthusiasm for the Energy East pipeline is raising concerns about the integrity of the review process that his government must conduct to ensure the project does not pose an undue environmental or safety risk. In Saint John on Thursday, Mr. Harper joined Premier David Alward and Arthur Irving at the Irving refinery for a photo op and apparent endorsement of the $12-billion proposal, in which TransCanada plans to ship crude from Alberta to Quebec and New Brunswick for use in eastern refineries and for export. If the project wins approval, TransCanada will convert existing natural-gas pipeline capacity to oil from Alberta through Ontario, and build a new line in Quebec and New Brunswick.

While noting that government was not a proponent, the Prime Minister nonetheless described the pipeline as a "pan-Canadian" project that is "very very exciting" and will create jobs "that will benefit the entire country."

Environmentalists and First Nations groups - who have yet to be consulted on the project - questioned Friday whether Mr. Harper's government can be both an enthusiastic supporter of the Energy East project and an impartial arbiter of whether its benefits outweigh any risks.

"I think he's pushing the positive part of it and not looking at the negative part of it," said Chief Joanna Bernard of Madawaska Maliseet First Nation. "We always feel the fix is in, but if we truly feel that this is not good and there is no way we can do it safely, then we're going to be all against it."

Ms. Bernard said New Brunswick is desperate for the kind of jobs and economic development that the politicians and proponents promise the pipeline will bring, but that aboriginal communities won't accept development that poses an undue environmental risk and need to be full partners.

Under legislation passed last year, Ottawa overhauled the environmental review process to impose strict deadlines, reduce the assessment of potential impacts on rivers and streams, and limit the ability of critics to participate in hearings. It also took final decision-making power out of the hands of the National Energy Board and placed in the hands of cabinet. New Democratic Party MP Peter Julian said the Harper government has undermined public confidence in the review process by stripping away protections.

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