Federal opposition MPs and environmental groups are crying foul over what they see as the government’s attempt to curtail public comment on Enbridge’s proposed 639-km Line 9 reversal pipeline route through southern Ontario and into Quebec.
Tucked away in last spring’s Bill C-38 omnibus budget bill from Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government is a requirement that any member of the public or other stakeholders wishing to comment through the National Energy Board on Enbridge’s proposed pipeline must apply for permission to comment on the project by filling out a 10-page application form which includes a request for references and a resume.
As it is an application process, if the NEB does not feel any group or individual is immediately impacted by the project or has relevant expertise to share it is under no obligation to grant them permission to comment.
Moreover, the public was granted only a two-week window to submit their application from April 5 to April 19.
"The new rules are undemocratic,” said Adam Scott of Environmental Defence. “They attempt to restrict the public’s participation in these hearings and prevent a real dialogue about the environmental impacts of the Line 9 pipeline project. Canadians should not have to apply for permission to have their voices heard on projects that carry serious risks to their communities.”
The proposed pipeline will carry dilbit, a mixture of bitumen and toxic diluent, through the Greater Golden Horseshoe, the most heavily populated corridor in the country around Lake Ontario and north to Montreal before another proposed pipeline would carry the crude oil south to Portland, Maine.
Enbridge already operates a pipeline from Sarnia to North Westover, west of Hamilton, Ontario. They are seeking permission to repurpose an aging pipeline built in the 1970s to ship heavy crude to Montreal.
Scott was joined by Keith Stewart of Greenpeace Canada in speaking out against the restriction of public comment on the contentious pipeline project.
“Since when does someone’s resume determine if they have the right to be concerned about what’s happening in their home community?” Stewart asked. "Anyone who lives and works in southern Ontario could be affected by a spill and everyone is affected by climate change. The right to send a letter of comment and have it considered by public agencies is part of the basic rights and freedoms Canadians enjoy.”
According to Green Party of Canada leader Elizabeth May, the problem arose from the government’s decision to restrict public participation to those “directly affected” by an energy project. “It is that terminology that has led to the abuse we witness today, but even with that restrictive language, the NEB has made it even more restrictive by adding its own two-week timeline,” said May.
“Enbridge plans to pump dilbit ... through our neighbourhoods using an aging pipe system originally built for natural gas. What would a spill near Lake Ontario mean for the water supply of millions of people?” she asked.
But according to Natural Resource minister Joe Oliver the decision to restrict public comment on energy infrastructure projects like Line 9 came out of hearings on the Northern Gateway pipeline in which 4,400 individuals registered to comment but only 1,400 “actually showed up,” according to Oliver. He argued the attempt to clog up the comment process was an attempt by environmentalists to “game the system.”
Oliver added: “The clear objective behind certain groups was to delay the process and to defeat the project,” something which citizen’s and environmental groups are perfectly within their rights to do if they strongly oppose any environmental project.
Public opposition will not guarantee a project’s failure – nor should it. The public is not inherently right, and government can often – though not always – be correct in moving ahead with a project over local concerns.
Yet ensuring any group or individual has an opportunity to have their voice heard is fundamental to the success of democratic discourse in this country. Undermine that and people will lose even more faith in the idea that government is responsive to their wants between elections and not merely on polling days.
But Oliver maintains the new application process is not as difficult to fill in as it has been made out to be. “If you are an expert wanting to testify, then the form is a little bit longer. But an expert, presumably, can fill it out,” he said. “For the average person, it’s not complex at all.”
Provincial politicians are getting involved as well. Ontario New Democratic MPP Jonah Schein asked provincial environment minister Jim Bradley for the province to conduct its own environmental assessment of the project since Bill C-38 also removed the necessity of a full EA before the pipeline is approved.
“We have received some requests that the province intervene. We are giving very serious consideration to those requests,” Bradley replied during question period. “We have encouraged municipalities, various ministries of our government, the public and interest groups out there to make the representations to the National Energy Board and to the federal government ... and we’ll be forthcoming with a fulsome answer at a point in time in the future.”
For those who have been approved to comment on the pipeline, oral presentations on the pipeline will take place August 26-30.
The photo above is from a series of photos taken by Environmental Defence’s Climate & Energy Program Manager, Adam Scott.
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