War in the Words: The Terminology Blocking Hundreds of Citizens from the Trans Mountain Pipeline Review

The National Energy Board (NEB) raised some eyebrows two weeks ago when it rejected 468 citizens — including 27 climate experts and the MP for Burnaby — from weighing in on the Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain oil pipeline proposal, which would triple the amount of oilsands bitumen shipped from Alberta to the B.C. coast.

The ruling — plus the revelation that the oral hearings have been nixed altogether — has raised questions about the legitimacy of the environmental assessment and the rationale for the NEB’s decision. The removal of oral hearings prompted several environmental organizations to formally request an extension of the process while others have hired legal counsel to represent rejected participants.

DeSmog Canada decided to take a closer look at the legal changes that allow the NEB to deny many British Columbians a say over a project that puts hundreds of watersheds and B.C.’s coastline at risk of an oil spill.   

It wasn’t always this way

To put the Trans Mountain review in perspective, first you need to look back — way back to Justice Thomas Berger’s 1973 Mackenzie Valley Pipeline inquiry. That inquiry took more than three years to hear submissions from dozens of communities and analyze the environmental and social effects of the pipeline. The consultation process encouraged participation and diligently included local knowledge and expertise.

The Berger Inquiry served as a guiding light for subsequent environmental assessments of national resource development projects, which were designed to emulate this practice — that is, until 2012. That was the year the federal government’s Jobs, Growth and Long-term Prosperity Act or omnibus budget bill C-38 changed many laws that determine the scope of environmental assessments — including who can participate and who cannot.

Drastic changes to environmental law shut door on participation

The new Canadian Environmental Assessment Act 2012 states that citizens can participate in an environmental assessment if a person is an “interested party.”  “Interested party” is then defined as those who are “directly affected” by the project or those who have “relevant information or expertise.” Further, the NEB need only be “of the opinion” that the individual or organization in question is either directly affected or has relevant expertise.

It’s this vague terminology — and the NEB’s discretionary application of these terms — that has been used to exclude citizens from the Trans Mountain pipeline review.

Given that a pipeline spill could affect hundreds of B.C. streams and rivers and a tanker spill could affect much of the coastline of B.C., it appears the NEB used an extremely narrow view of “directly affected.” That brings us to another piece of legislation that is notable only for its arcane language: the National Energy Board Act.

The NEB Act reduces the definition of “directly affected” to a person with a “detailed interest” in the project. The NEB takes into account the “likelihood and severity of harm a person is exposed to” and “the frequency and duration of a person’s use of the area near the project” to determine if a person is “directly affected.” 

Who’s in and who’s out? Reading the tea leaves

Perhaps not all that unsurprisingly, the NEB has not made public how it measures the “severity of harm” or “frequency and duration of person’s use of area,” nor does it explain what it considers to be “near” the project. So, would a statement like “I use the local river to fish and fear that a spill would prevent me from fishing” meet the thresholds for “severe harm” and “frequent use?” It is unclear and the NEB provides no rationale as to why each applicant was denied status.

The one useful piece of information the NEB offered to help us read the tea leaves was that a person’s address was a consideration — presumably the board required a participant to live very “near” a pipeline or tanker route and may have used postal codes to cull participants.

In a letter to applicants, “Ruling on Participation,” the NEB says citizens needed to “have a specific and detailed interest that was sufficiently affected.” The NEB leaves rejected applicants in the dark as to why their concerns were not “specific,” “detailed” or “sufficient” enough. The NEB could have interpreted these terms narrowly in order to cull participants from the process.

Further, the pipeline terminates and reaches tidewater in the federal riding of Burnaby Douglas. For people who live in that community, the possible environmental and economic impacts of this national infrastructure project are huge — yet the NEB has ruled local MP Kennedy Stewart ineligible to participate. 

Downgrading

In addition to outright rejecting 468 people from participating, the NEB also downgraded 452 applicants from “intervenors” to “commenters.” Commenters, who had to fill out an arduous 10-page application to participate, cannot ask questions or file evidence — they’re only allowed to submit a single written comment to the review panel.  

Relevant expertise?

Notably, the environmental impacts of the development of the oilsands and climate change are not part of this environmental assessment’s scope — 27 B.C. climate experts were rejected from the hearings.

Economists from the Canadian Centre of Policy Alternatives and the president of the Business Council of British Columbia were also rejected. For an assessment whose scope does include the “socio-economic effects of the proposed project” and the “economic feasibility of the project,” it is difficult to justify the refusal of expertise that can speak to the negative and positive economic impacts of the proposed project.

The NEB’s decisions determining who can participate in the Trans Mountain Expansion assessment are unclear, lack transparency and limit democratic participation. Denying standing to those who are affected or have relevant information “streamlines” the process but makes the process far less effective and accountable. The NEB calls its is own ruling on participation “generous,” although it could also be called a smokescreen, meant to legitimate the Review Panel’s final decision.

Feds following in Alberta’s footsteps on environmental laws

CEAA 2012 has been used to exclude participants from other assessments. The joint review panel looking into Shell’s Jackpine mine expansion in the oilsands determined that people living downstream from the proposed project are not “interested parties.” Indeed, the “directly affected” language used in CEAA 2012 is similar to that of Alberta’s old Energy Resources Conservation Act that states regulators must consider how a development might “directly and adversely affect the rights of a person.”

The new Responsible Energy Development Act (2012) in Alberta includes the same language. Alberta regulators have ruled that residents living near proposed sour gas wells and people living three kilometres downwind from flaring are not “directly or adversely affected.” It appears the federal government is writing and interpreting legislation in the same way Alberta has done — making way for the construction of oil and gas infrastructure at the expense of environmental protection.

Shortened timeline means a less rigorous process

The entire Trans Mountain environmental assessment will take 18 months — not enough time to conduct proper scientific research into impacts, according to federal scientists.  

Although environmental assessments should allow for debate and determine if a project is in the public interest, federal assessments have merely become rubber stamps for pipeline and oilsands projects.

Image Credit: screenshot from TransMountain.com