(Recasts with allegations against government, adds hearing detail, attorney comments)
By Moira Warburton
VANCOUVER, British Columbia, Dec 16 (Reuters) - The Canadian government was accused on Monday of merely going through the motions of consulting indigenous people about its expansion of the Trans Mountain oil pipeline at a court hearing to determine the future of the politically charged project.
The three-day hearing is taking place in the Federal Court of Appeal in Vancouver, which agreed in September to consider concerns from four indigenous groups that the government’s consultation this year was insufficient.
The legal challenge is the latest setback for Trans Mountain, which is one of several stalled pipeline expansions proposed to ease congested export channels.
The Trans Mountain expansion would nearly triple capacity to move 890,000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta to a port terminal near Vancouver. Construction continues despite the court challenge.
The Canadian government was determined to approve Trans Mountain’s expansion, based on public comments by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his ministers, and the fact that it purchased the project, Scott Smith, lawyer for Tsleil-Waututh Nation, told the court.
The government initially withheld reports on the project’s impact and did not meaningfully discuss potential marine spills with indigenous groups, Smith said. A report written by the federal environment department appeared to have been revised to make it more positive, he added.
“(Government) was unilaterally focused on, to use the minister of finance’s words, getting shovels into the ground,” Smith said.
The Canadian government is scheduled to present its case on Tuesday. A Natural Resources department spokeswoman said the government approved the project after meaningful dialogue that resulted in new measures to accommodate indigenous concerns.
The court took the rare step of webcasting the hearing. Several dozen observers, including indigenous people, filled a small courtroom and overflow room.
“Again First Nations have to go back to court in Canada to make them listen to us,” said Chief Lee Spahan of the Coldwater Indian Band prior to the hearing, using a term for Canadian indigenous communities.
Coldwater has not rejected the project outright, but wants drinking water safeguards, lawyer Matthew Kirchner said.
The government set too short a timetable to meaningfully consult the Ts’elxweyeqw Tribe, whose land Trans Mountain crosses, its lawyer Joelle Walker said.
In Ottawa, Finance Minister Bill Morneau said the government hopes to eventually sell Trans Mountain and is open to indigenous ownership.
“Our objective overall is to make sure the indigenous people along the route can be engaged, (and) that there could be benefits ... for indigenous people more broadly,” he said.
Ottawa bought the pipeline in 2018 from Kinder Morgan’s Canadian unit when it appeared the company might abandon the expansion. (Reporting by Moira Warburton in Vancouver; writing and additional reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Manitoba; additional reporting by Steve Scherer in Ottawa; Editing by David Gregorio and Bill Berkrot)