ForestEthics Advocacy Suing Harper Government Over National Energy Board Rules

Prime Minister Stephen Harper

ForestEthics Advocacy Association, represented by Canadian civil rights and constitutional lawyer Clayton Ruby, is suing the Harper government over new rules that restrict citizens' ability to participate in public decisions about the energy industry.

The lawsuit, filed in Toronto today, calls for the Federal Court of Canada to “strike down provisions of the National Energy Board Act that unreasonably restrict public comment on project proposals,” and challenge “new rules created by the National Energy Board (NEB), which prevent any discussion of the wisdom of tar sands development at the upcoming Enbridge Line 9B hearings.”

The NEB regulates Canada's oil, gas and electricity industries, and approves all of its pipeline construction, mining, natural gas projects, and tar sands development.

The NEB's decisions have vast environmental and health repercussions, and ForestEthics Advocacy is arguing that blocking Canadians from participating in those decisions “violates citizens' right to free speech and puts our natural environment at risk.”

The changes being targeted by the lawsuit were introduced via the 2012 Omnibus Budget Bill C-38, which also officially withdrew Canada from the Kyoto Protocol. As ForestEthics Advocacy explains in its backgrounder, buried in Bill C-38 were provisions preventing citizens from commenting at NEB hearings or giving written submissions to the Board.

Because of the new legislation, citizens wanting to participate in NEB hearings now have to “submit a nine-page application to the National Energy Board (NEB) justifying their right to speak to the issue.” The NEB then chooses who does or doesn't get to speak, reserving “the right to exclude anyone except for those that it considers to be 'directly affected' by the proposed project.”

The legislation has proven an effective tactic for muzzling Canadian voices. According to ForestEthics Advocacy, 1,544 people/entities were able to give testimony in 2012 at the NEB hearings for the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, before the changes. This year, because of the new rules, only 175 will be allowed to speak at the hearings for the Enbridge Line 9B reversal project.

The project calls for the reversal of the 9B pipeline, which currently transports conventional oil across Quebec and Ontario, so that it can carry heavy crude including tar sands oil. The pipeline “crosses every Canadian river flowing into Lake Ontario, threatening the drinking water of millions.”

The 9B project is the first pipeline proposal to come under authority of the new NEB rules. ForestEthics Advocacy warns that “there are other substantial pipeline projects in the queue,” and that if the new NEB rules remain in place, “thousands of Canadians will be precluded from submitting comments on these and other projects.”

According to Ruby, “the Conservative government has undermined the democratic rights of all Canadians to speak to the issues that impact them.” Ruby says that he and ForestEthics are fighting the legislation and the NEB's new rules because they “violate fundamental free speech guarantees enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

“The amendments not only restrict who can speak to issues before the National Energy Board, but they also limit what those individuals are allowed to say,” says ForestEthics Advocacy board member Tzeporah Berman. Berman thinks Canadians “deserve a fair public debate about the future of our economy and energy systems,” but simply “aren't getting it.”

Also joining the lawsuit is writer and member of the United Church of Canada Donna Sinclair, whose request to submit a letter of comment at the upcoming Enbridge Line 9B reversal project hearings was denied under the new rules.

“Tightening the rules around public participation to the extent that any citizen of this country - regardless of expertise or geographical location - cannot express their concerns is an extraordinary and profoundly dangerous affront to our democracy. I love my country and my beliefs call on me to respect our environment. That is why I chose to join this lawsuit,” says Sinclair.

ForestEthics Advocacy is currently holding a 72-hour online fundraiser to cover the cost of the lawsuit's start-up fees, which come to $150,000. The target is $50,000, which will be matched to the dollar by two undisclosed donors.

ForestEthics Advocacy urges people to contribute and “fight for Canadians' right to speak up for the rivers, forests, lakes and landscapes that are threatened by tar sands expansion and proposed pipeline, rail and tanker projects.”

Image Credit: Heather / Flickr