By Nia Williams and David Ljunggren
CALGARY/OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's National Energy Board on Tuesday suspended Montreal hearings on TransCanada Corp's <TRP.TO> proposed Energy East pipeline after protests disrupted the first day of the process on Monday.
The board, Canada's energy regulator, also said in a statement it would not proceed with further hearings until it had considered two motions asking for the recusal of members from the panel considering the pipeline. The NEB has invited written comments on the motions by Sept. 7.
Opponents want two of the three panel members to step down after it emerged they had privately discussed the pipeline last year with former Quebec Premier Jean Charest, who at the time was working for TransCanada as a consultant.
"This decision has been made as a result of a violent disruption on the first day of the proceedings and ongoing security concerns," the NEB said in a statement.
"Given that two motions have been filed asking for the recusal of Panel Members.... the Board will not proceed with further Panel Sessions until it reaches a decision."
The next round of panel sessions is scheduled for Oct. 3-7 in Quebec City.
The move is the latest blow to hit the Energy East project, which would carry 1.1 million barrels of crude per day from Alberta's oil sands to the east coast of Canada.
Environmental groups reject the project and opposition is particularly acute in the mostly French-speaking province of Quebec, which the pipeline would need to cross. Montreal is the biggest city in Quebec.
Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, when asked whether the two panel members should be replaced, said that was not a decision the government would want to make.
"The NEB will have to deal with it. We are interested in making sure the process continues and that Canadians who have an opinion have the right and the freedom to say it," Carr told reporters following a speech in Calgary.
Patrick DeRochie of Environmental Defense called for the entire Energy East review process to be put on hold until the government completes a review of Canada's environmental laws and processes.
"The indefinite postponement of NEB hearings for Energy East is the latest sign that the review process for major energy projects is completely broken. It's clear that we need a fundamental overhaul of the NEB," DeRochie said.
TransCanada said it will wait for the NEB to provide guidance on how it plans to proceed.
(Editing by Bernard Orr and Dan Grebler)