Protesters disrupt Energy East environmental hearings in Quebec

MONTREAL -- Quebec's environmental hearings into the Energy East Pipeline project got off to a difficult start Monday evening, as protesters chanted and disrupted proceedings seconds after the company's vice-president began speaking.

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Joseph Zayed, with Quebec's environmental regulation agency, was forced to temporarily suspend the hearings as protesters snuck into the audience room, unfurled a banner denouncing the pipeline and sang songs to try and silence the presenter.

The room was brought under control after roughly 15 minutes and Louis Bergeron, Energy East's vice-president for New Brunswick and Quebec, was able to start again.

Calgary-based TransCanada Corp. (TSX:TRP) is the company behind the $15.7-billion project that would carry more than a million barrels a day of crude from Alberta and Saskatchewan, through Quebec to Saint John, N.B., for refining.

The project is particularly controversial in Quebec, where environmental activists and some municipal politicians have come out against the pipeline.

They say the risks of Energy East are greater than its benefits and it would represent an increase in the country's greenhouse gas emissions and contribute to global climate change.

Many of the roughly 250 people gathered in a conference room in Levis, across the St. Lawrence River from Quebec City, were against the project.

People booed and chirped when they didn't like Bergeron's answers, forcing Zayed to plead with the crowd several times to settle down.

Quebec's environmental review agency is tasked with conducting an assessment of the risks and benefits and produce a report to the province's environment minister.

Bergeron gave the broad strokes of the Energy East project to the agency's three commission members as well as to those gathered in the audience room.

"The Energy East project will bring a major reduction of foreign imports of oil into refineries in Eastern Canada," Bergeron said.

Canada's oil sands are currently landlocked and TransCanada says an export pipeline to the Atlantic Ocean would open international markets and grow the country's GDP, benefiting all Canadians.

"Pipelines are a way to transport oil that is safe, reliable and efficient," Bergeron said.

After TransCanada's presentation, Canada's National Energy Board gave a brief presentation about its role in reviewing energy project proposals.

While the federal government has final say over whether or not Energy East is given the go-ahead, it would be politically difficult for Ottawa to force a pipeline on Quebec's territory if the province rejects the project.

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard has not taken a position on the pipeline, and neither has Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Members of the public who took part in the question-and-answer period after the presentations were mostly skeptical of the project.

They asked Bergeron questions about soil contamination, increased greenhouse gas emissions and the rights of property holders along the pipeline route.

Many of Bergeron's answers were met with some boos and other muffled comments from many in the audience.

Monday's hearings were the beginning a months-long process looking into the Quebec portion of the pipeline.

The hearings will be broken down into two parts: the first will analyze the project's potential impacts on water and risks of spills. The second series of hearings are scheduled to begin in April, when the environmental agency is set to hear more from the public.

Last week, a Quebec court refused an environmental coalition's request to suspend the hearings.

The coalition was seeking the injunction because it believes the process will not be complete without impact studies from TransCanada.



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