Canada energy assessment panel to recommend major changes

OTTAWA (Reuters) - A special panel examining how to reform the way Canada carries out environmental assessments of major energy projects will recommend substantial changes, the head of the body said on Thursday.

The Liberal government, faced with increasingly vocal protests against proposed new oil pipelines, wants to reform the assessment process. It will devise a new policy based on a report from the panel, which is due by end-January 2017.

“We’re not planning to come with little recommendations at the margins. We are thinking of coming with something substantial in terms of changes,” panel chair Johanne Gelinas said in a phone interview.

She declined to give specific details, noting the four-person panel would be traveling across Canada until the middle of December seeking public input.

Federal ministers said earlier this year that Canadians had lost faith in the current system, whereby the National Energy Board (NEB) carries out environmental assessments of federally regulated energy projects.

Critics say the NEB - the country’s energy regulator - is too close to the industry and does not consult the public enough when considering projects.

Two sources familiar with the matter said last month that Ottawa might curb the NEB’s power by stripping it of sole oversight of new projects.

Gelinas declined to comment, saying she said she had no indications the Liberals had already decided what to do.

“There is a lot of pressure on us to come up with the right recipe and there’s no room for error,” she said.

A person familiar with the file said the government was expecting the panel to produce a report with wide-ranging conclusions.

Environmentalists and aboriginal activists who oppose development of Canada’s oil sands are stepping up opposition to energy projects, threatening years of delays.

In an indication of what might be in the report, Gelinas said the panel had already heard many comments about sustainability and the environmental effect of projects.

Gelinas also said the panel would also look at issues such as public consultations on new projects.

“These are things that need to be fixed,” she said.

Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Steve Orlofsky