Public input on Kinder Morgan hearings will be 'restricted', critics argue

New online NEB application form expected to make process for submitting comments easier, but not less controversial.

A new online application form launched this week by the National Energy Board is not easing critics’ concerns that the regulator’s public hearing process for reviewing oil pipelines has become “undemocratic.”
For months, any member of the public who wanted to sign up to have a say about Kinder Morgan’s proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project had to fill out a lengthy, 10-page form and fax it in.
The NEB admits that form was too lengthy and confusing, so it was replaced by a simplified NEB website form on Wednesday that “takes minutes to complete” according to the board.
“It’s more succinct, it’s online, and it’s easier to fill out.  We’re hoping it’s a much smoother process,” said NEB spokesperson Sarah Kiley from Calgary on Thursday.
But the online change is only part of a major overhaul of how the public can apply to participate in NEB pipeline hearings. Several community and environmental groups still challenge the whole process as limiting public participation.
“They seem to be restricting public comments,” said Michael Hale, an Abbotsford resident and volunteer with PIPE UP Network – a community group of hundreds of Fraser Valley and coastal residents seeking to get more information about pipeline projects.
“Only people directly affected by the pipeline may be heard.  Our view is that this restricts public access,” Hale said Wednesday.
The NEB confirmed applicants should ideally be living along the pipeline route, or have relevant expertise on environmental and social impacts of the pipelines.  The hearing will also consider perspectives on potential marine oil spills.
But the board confirmed it would not consider submissions about climate change, the expansion of the Alberta tar sands, or the burning of the bitumen fuels in China.
“Our mandate is to regulate the pipelines, not the oil sands, or the downstream uses, [such as] how the product will be used after its been shipped to its destination,” said Kiley.
A copy of each person’s application will also be provided to Texas-headquartered pipeline giant Kinder Morgan, which can argue to have an applicant removed.
A Harper government omnibus bill called C-38 brought in the changes to the application to participate process two years ago.  The law requires people to apply to participate at the pipeline hearings, rather than just register.
ForestEthics, represented by lawyer Clayton Ruby, is suing the federal government over the changes, claiming the law represents a charter violation of freedom of speech.
Before the legislation was enacted, Federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said in 2011 that the changes to the application process were necessary because “foreign special interest groups" had "hijacked" the regulatory process," the Canadian Press reported.
The law did not initially affect the Northern Gateway hearings.  The joint review panel saw more than 1,179 people make oral statements, 47 aboriginal groups act as interveners, and more than 9,000 people sending in letters.

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