A legal protest motion and rowdy demonstrators pushed the National Energy Board (NEB) into calling a time-out Tuesday to hearings on TransCanada Corp.’s plan for partial conversion of its natural gas Mainline to oil service.

The shove came in Montreal, where militant project opponents stormed the hearing room calling the case a biased farce. The action was inspired by a motion from two eco-groups, calling on two of the three members on the NEB review panel to withdraw from the case.

The demonstration ended peacefully Monday. Only three of the protesters were arrested. But one hothead fought his way to a conference center table where the panel sat. The episode raised security prevention that kept the Montreal sessions from starting. Vigorous demonstrations are a hallmark of the Quebec political scene.

After mulling over the situation until the next afternoon, the NEB suspended its roving hearings on the project across Canada until a decision can be made on the motion by two Quebec organizations.

Strategies Energetique and the Association quebecoise de lutte contre pollution atmospherique allege two members – NEB vice-chair Lyne Mercier and Jacques Gauthier – have created at least a public perception of bias.

The pair participated in secret and private meetings on Energy East with Quebec luminaries including business leaders and former provincial premier Jean Charest while he also did consulting work for TransCanada, the protest motion says.

No date was set to resume hearings on the C$15.7 billion ($12 billion) proposal to partially convert and extend the gas Mainline into a 4,520-kilometer (2,700-mile) conduit for 1.1 million b/d of Alberta oil to a New Brunswick tanker port (see Daily GPI, Aug. 5; July 19; June 17).

In the meantime Canadian Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr weighed in on the issue. “We hope the situation involving the Energy East hearings will be resolved immediately to allow the process to continue so Canadians can voice their point of view on this important national topic,” he said Thursday.

“Canadians expect and deserve to have confidence in their public institutions. Independence and neutrality are fundamental principles for all of Canada’s regulatory institutions, including those reviewing major projects such as the NEB. Canadians expect all regulatory institutions to address claims that the principles of independence and neutrality are not being respected.” Carr said “we are modernizing the NEB to restore the trust that Canadians want, and we will be reviewing the NEB’s mandate, structure and role, including public participation in the regulatory reviews.”

The NEB’s next steps are to collect comments on the protest motion by next Wednesday (Sept. 7), allow time for rebuttal, then work out a ruling. The motion also alleges NEB chairman Peter Watson participated in the contested private meetings and that he should step down for the duration of the Energy East regulatory review.