Excluding the Public From Tar Sands Pipeline Decisions Could Backfire on the Federal Government

Restrictions on public participation in energy decisions may actually backfire on the federal government.

Last week DeSmog Canada reported residents of Ontario and Quebec have to apply for permission to voice their concerns about Enbridge's plans to ship oil and bitumen from Alberta's tar sands through the 37-year old Line 9 pipeline.

People who manage to receive approval can only comment on issues the National Energy Board (NEB) – Canada's independent energy regulator – considers relevant to the pipeline. Climate change, tar sands industry expansion or air pollution from refineries are not relevant to Line 9 according to the NEB.   

These public-participation restrictions were introduced in last year's federal omnibus bill C-38 to ensure pipeline projects are approved quickly. Things might not work out that way.

Like a child who does not want to share their favourite bouncing ball and squeezes so tightly it slips through their fingers, the federal government may have cut themselves and NEB out of the final decision on Line 9.

Loss of Social Licence

By limiting public participation in the NEB process, these companies run the risk of losing their social licence to operate,” says Nathan Lemphers, an oil sands policy analyst with the Pembina Institute.

Social licence to operate (SLO) is commonly understood to be a community's acceptance of a project in their area whether it is a mine, housing development or a pipeline. The Fraser Institute describes SLO as “mutual respect, honesty, open dialogue, transparency, timely responses to community concerns, and predictability in the companies’ ethical behaviour.”

The NEB's new rules requiring residents of a community living beside a pipeline to fill out a 10-page form to prove they have a right to have their opinions considered is unlikely to leave Ontarians and Quebecers with sentiments of mutual respect, honesty or a open dialogue.

Companies can sometimes get around the SLO issue in places that are sparsely inhabited. Logically less inhabitants equals less opposition to a project.

Line 9 is very much an urban pipeline. It is goes through major Canadian urban centres such as Toronto, and Montreal. Southern Ontario and southern Quebec where Line 9 lies is home to almost 1-in-3 Canadians.

Residents of Ontario and Quebec who are just finding out about Line 9 now may not be happy to know the NEB will not listen to their comments and concerns about Line 9. The deadline to apply to participate in the NEB decision-making process was last Friday (April 19th) even for writing a letter.

Members of the public who receive NEB approval to participate in the process may feel their input will not matter anyway. The NEB rarely rejects energy projects and a federal government that openly supports west-to-east pipelines can override any decision the NEB makes.

Local communities may very well equate what they feel is an illegitimate process with the illegitimacy of a project.” Lemphers told DeSmog Canada.

Canada Lacks A Venue To Discuss National Energy Issues

The majority of Canadians are concerned about climate change and more and more people are becoming concerned about the tar sands industry as it evolves into the issue that defines this decade for Canada. The NEB has forbidden participants in the Line 9 decision to raise these issues.

In Canada there is a now a huge regulatory void – there are no institutions in place that could allow us, as a national community, to deliberate on the costs and benefits associated with these major infrastructure projects and their distributive effects,” says Dayna Nadine Scott, an associate professor at Osgoode Hall Law School.

If Canadians cannot voice their concerns about national energy project issues to the National Energy Board, it should not come as a surprise that Canadians will ignore the NEB and make their own decisions on proposed energy projects.

Do-It-Yourself Community Decisions on Pipelines

Groups opposed to shipping bitumen through Ontario and Quebec are beginning to side step the NEB and are turning to their provincial governments.

Greenpeace Quebec has stated their organization will not participate in the Line 9 hearings because the NEB will not consider larger issues related to Line 9 such as climate change in its decision. Greenpeace Quebec and other environmental groups in the province are concentrating on the Quebec government's upcoming review of the Line 9 project.

If they get permission, Environmental Defence, an environmental group based in Toronto will try to participate in the Line 9 hearings. However the main focus of Environmental Defence is to get the Ontario government to conduct a independent environmental assessment of Line 9.

Rising Tide Toronto is considering working with communities along Line 9 to create “people's hearings” to run parallel with the Line 9 hearings at the end of August.  

We think it's crucial that there be a space for affected communities to discuss the Line 9 reversal, including issues like the impacts of tar sands production for upstream and downstream communities, and global climate change,” says Sonia Grant, a member of  Rising Tide Toronto.

Since the federal government seems intent on prohibiting a meaningful democratic process grassroots organizers may have to create that space ourselves.” Grant told DeSmog. 

The final decision on Line 9 is the jurisdiction of the NEB and the federal government. Either the government of Ontario or Quebec could stop the project. In BC the fate of the Northern Gateway pipeline will be determined by who wins the current provincial election, not the NEB's final decision on the project. The front-running BC NDP is opposed to Northern Gateway.

Ontario or Quebec will not stop Line 9 without tens of thousands of people voicing their concerns  about a risky project that offers few benefits. Unless the public becomes vocal in the same numbers as the Gateway opponents in BC or the students of last year's Maple Spring, the governments of Ontario and Quebec will take little notice and the NEB will continue to quietly approve energy projects just as they have for the last fifty years.

Image Credit: Enbridge


..opposition needs to go to government directly.  Let them know exactly how you feel, and more importantly how you'll vote, how your friends will vote, and how loud you'll be about it.

City, Provincial, and Community governments may step in although I wouldn't count on Rob Ford.  I think the fact that pipes leak and that these communities may well be totally screwed in the aftermath should be a pretty obvious concern.

Demanding that the government talk about climate change is a far more lofty goal.  Good luck with that.

Removing people's rights to speak will have a backlash.  If you tell me not to talk about something, then it goes sideways, you can bet I'll be a lot more insistent that heads roll.