(Recasts with government testimony; adds indigenous concerns about whales, PIX)
By Moira Warburton
VANCOUVER, British Columbia, Dec 17 (Reuters) - The Canadian government tried its best to consult indigenous groups about plans to expand its oil pipeline and undertook “no conspiracy” to ram it through the approval stage, a federal lawyer said in court on Tuesday.
A court ruled in August 2018 that Ottawa had failed to properly consult indigenous people, prompting the government to redo the process before reapproving the Trans Mountain expansion project in June. But in September, the Federal Court of Appeal agreed to hear fresh concerns from four indigenous groups that the government fell short again in consulting them.
A three-day hearing began in Vancouver on Monday to hear those concerns. The project is one of several stalled pipeline expansions proposed to ease the oil industry’s congested export channels.
The Canadian government consulted 129 groups and was determined to be transparent, providing internal notes about the project’s potential impact despite not being legally required to do so, said its lawyer, Dayna Anderson.
“There’s no conspiracy, there’s no suppression, there’s no alteration of scientific views, there’s no nefarious action going on,” Anderson said. “There was good-faith engagement.”
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.
One indigenous community told a different story earlier on Tuesday.
Squamish Nation in British Columbia received government reports on the impact of marine spills only after federal consultations with its officials had concluded in June, Michelle Bradley, a lawyer for Squamish said.
When it did receive the reports - peer reviews of indigenous groups’ expert reports - Squamish said it discovered too late for discussion that the government’s own scientists agreed with the communities that much is not understood about how spilled bitumen would react in bodies of water.
“Information was disclosed far too late,” Bradley said. “It took place in a flurry of activity at the very end or even after the consultative process.”
Anderson, the government’s attorney, said the information in question were summaries, not peer reviews.
Understanding the impacts of a bigger pipeline are important, especially because of threats from noise and marine traffic to endangered southern resident killer whales, Squamish lawyer Matthew Kirchner said.
“We don’t know how much more the whales can take.”
The hearing is scheduled to last through Wednesday, when lawyers for the oil-producing provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan are among the scheduled speakers. (Reporting by Moira Warburton in Vancouver; writing by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Manitoba; Editing by Dan Grebler)