Jack Knox: B.C. pipeline critics silenced at hearings

Easter weekend, start of the driving season, and — just like clockwork — gas prices and blood pressure spike in concert. Nothing like a 13-cent-a-litre jump to fill talk radio with purple-faced callers sputtering about all things petro-related.

Here’s one place you won’t hear as much debate as expected: the hearings into Kinder Morgan’s proposal to triple the size of its Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to Burnaby.

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Those with official intervenor status have been told they will not, as has been the case in the past, be allowed to orally cross-examine witnesses when the National Energy Board’s hearings into the proposal begin in January. Instead, they will be limited to submitting a couple of written questions. For a parallel, think of an episode of Law & Order in which the prosecutor only gets to pass the accused notes, not give him a real grilling.

That means the project won’t get the rigorous scrutiny it needs, opponents claim. Saanich-Gulf Islands Green MP Elizabeth May is even threatening to bring in legendary scary Toronto lawyer Clayton Ruby to challenge the change in court.

May, Green MLA Andrew Weaver and B.C. Green Leader Adam Olsen — all of whom have intervenor status — held a news conference on the Victoria waterfront Thursday where, with passing commercial vessels as a backdrop, they railed against the change in policy.

They were echoed by another intervenor, Victoria New Democrat MP Murray Rankin, who as an environmental lawyer had a long history of cross-examining witnesses at regulatory hearings. It is through cross-examinations of proponents such as Kinder Morgan that proposals’ weaknesses are exposed, he said. “Not to have them is, frankly, bizarre.”

Rankin and Weaver both said it was oral cross-examination at the Northern Gateway hearings that uncovered flaws in Enbridge’s proposal to build twin pipelines between Alberta and Kitimat. The B.C. government’s final argument on Northern Gateway relied heavily on that evidence. Weaver wants the provincial government to push the NEB to restore the old rules.

That would go against what Ottawa wants, though. It’s no secret that the Harper government is determined to speed up resource development projects that it believes have been unnecessarily bogged down by environmentalists and others who have hijacked the proceedings for use as a political soapbox. Some have tried to use the NEB’s relatively narrowly focused approval process as a proxy for public hearings into larger questions related to global warming or the Alberta oilsands.

When the terms of the Trans Mountain hearing were drawn up, the NEB said it would only hear testimony on 12 specific issues related to Kinder Morgan’s proposal, including the project’s economic viability, the safety of shipping oil from the coast, aboriginal interests and environmental and socio-economic impacts along the route.

“The board does not intend to consider the environmental and socio-economic impacts associated with upstream activities, the development of oilsands, or the downstream use of the oil transported by the pipeline,” the NEB’s Sarah Kiley noted Thursday.

Those limitations are understandable. What’s harder to defend is doing away with oral cross-examination on the very issues the hearings are supposed to be about. May, Weaver, Olsen and Rankin all applied to be intervenors with the expectation that they would be allowed to engage in a back-and-forth exchange with Kinder Morgan based on the questions they say British Columbians want answered.

There seem to be fewer entrenched opinions around the Trans Mountain proposal than the more-polarizing Northern Gateway scheme. Many people want more information before making up their minds about — or before deciding under which conditions they would accept — the project, which would send up to 34 tankers a month, up from the current six, sliding past Victoria as they head from Burnaby to Asia and California. (If you ask Mike Harcourt, condemning the Kinder Morgan plan prior to hearing the evidence cost the New Democrats the last provincial election.) But how do you get the answers if you don’t ask the right questions?

About 400 intervenors, twice as many as were heard at the Northern Gateway hearings, are signed up for the Trans Mountain process. The NEB must submit its report by July 2, 2015.

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