First Nations leaders left in the dark. The public, once again, denied the chance to speak. Add to that a clear conflict of interest at the heart of the panel chosen to review Kinder Morgan’s pipeline proposal and you have a recipe for yet more lawsuits and squandered public trust.
It didn’t have to be this way. After nearly 10 years under Stephen Harper, British Columbians were yearning for a government that cared about public input and would actually listen to them.
We all know how much Harper scorned public consultation, highlighted by Minister Joe Oliver’s attack on well-meaning Canadians as “radicals” for having the temerity to accept the National Energy Board’s invitation to speak at Joint Review Panel hearings on Enbridge’s controversial pipeline and tanker proposal.
Conflict of interest, slapdash process drag down Liberals’ Kinder Morgan review
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You may also remember the National Energy Board’s so-called public hearings this January in Burnaby, where the Harper-appointed panel barred the public from the room. That’s why the Trudeau government announced a new “supplementary process” on Kinder Morgan to restore public trust by actually listening to those most affected.
After all, as Trudeau said so often on the campaign trail, “governments grant permits, but only communities can grant permission.” Yet in what seems like a bad dream, those communities are once again being silenced in the mad rush to get bitumen pipelines to the coast.
At first Trudeau’s government was a breath of fresh air, promising broad public consultations on a wide variety of subjects: CBC’s future, the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement (TPP), Canada Post home delivery, legalizing marijuana, employment insurance (EI) reforms, environmental assessment reforms, electoral reform and a pan-Canadian climate change plan, just to name a few.
Canadians applauded the change in tone in Ottawa and welcomed the opportunity to have a say in issues that concerned them. But the reality is consultation involves more than sound bites. Recent developments on the pipeline file raise serious concerns about the Trudeau government’s commitment to actually listen to British Columbians.
Where did it all go wrong?
The afternoon before the Canada Day long weekend, Ottawa’s Major Projects Management Office finally released details for the long-anticipated redo of the Kinder Morgan review.
The government announced a series of 90-minute ‘roundtables’ in the middle of summer holidays in seven communities across B.C. Only one, Victoria, is on the oil tanker route. The sessions are divided up between First Nations, business groups, labour and NGOs.
Who gets to speak? That’s up to the Natural Resources bureaucrats. All the website says is “Should you wish to participate by making a presentation or comments to the Panel, please email us at [email protected] to confirm your preferred location and date.”
If you’re counting, that email address contains 62 characters. The longest word in the English language, pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, is just 45. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, made famous by Mary Poppins, clocks in at 34 letters.
In addition, four communities (Victoria, Vancouver, Burnaby and Langley) each get a “public townhall with open participation,” time and venue TBD.
After residents on the North Shore vented their frustration to local Liberal MPs, the government quietly added a fifth townhall in North Vancouver on a Friday in August. The rest of the province is out of luck.
For example, in Kamloops, members of the public were told they were allowed to go and watch, but without a chance to comment or ask questions. There are four hours scheduled for First Nations, while invited municipal, business and NGO “stakeholders” have each been allotted 90 minutes. There is no slot for the public to present their views. On the day of the meeting the supplemental panel decided to open up the process and allow people to speak or ask questions. Many people chose not to attend thinking there was no such opportunity.
So much for transparency and inclusion
Instead of a thorough review that could remedy the fatal flaws of the NEB process, Trudeau’s government appears to have adopted a “make it up as you go along” process that is nothing if not short on rigour. It’s unacceptable after 12 years of trying to get government to listen, each community only gets a few minutes to sum up their views on the Kinder Morgan proposal.
How about the literally thousands of pages of scientific review the NEB ignored, deemed inadmissible, or failed to consider? How will that be brought into evidence? One such item being the U.S. National Academies of Science report which documented the dangers of diluted bitumen spills (the stuff sinks in water). The NEB rejected the report because it was labeled as “prejudicial” to Kinder Morgan. How is that peer-reviewed science supposed to be presented this truncated format?
What about the thousands of pages of evidence Kinder Morgan submitted, but was never tested under cross examination? I’d like to see someone try to compress into the few minutes allotted to each speaker.
Finally, how is Ottawa deciding who gets invited and who doesn’t?
At the Edmonton hearing — the location of which was announced with only 48 hours notice — the majority of people in attendance were those personally invited by the government in advance. A similar situation is happening with the B.C. sessions. I can think of a lot of choice words to describe this “supplementary review,” but rigorous, transparent, open and inclusive are not among them.
I’m deeply disappointed, as will be many other British Columbians that were happy to think “Sunny Ways” was replacing a decade of Harper’s bully tactics. I thought when Prime Minister Trudeau promised Dogwood, on camera, to re-do the Kinder Morgan review that he sincerely wanted to hear from British Columbians. Instead, bureaucrats are racing through these summer meetings so Cabinet can stick to Stephen Harper’s original timeline and make a final decision in December.
Last chance to fix this
The decision whether to expand oil tanker traffic on the B.C. coast is too important to do on the basis of a slapdash PR exercise. This is not a political game. The entire Lower Mainland and South Island would be affected by an oil tanker spill, plus everyone who relies on salmon from the Fraser and Thompson watersheds — or the multi-billion dollar tourism industry on the south coast. And that’s before counting the enormous climate impacts.
As a leaked Finance Ministry memo made clear, there is no pressing need for this pipeline: “sufficient capacity is projected to exist to transport oil until at least 2025.” Kinder Morgan’s proposal is all about expanding the oil sands. That’s worth a broader conversation.
Given the legal risks and public dissatisfaction surrounding the NEB’s heavy-handed Trans Mountain process, Trudeau could have extended the deadline for the ultimate cabinet decision. He chose not to. He could have announced a do-over in June after the Federal Court of Appeal slammed Ottawa for its handling of the Enbridge review. Again, he chose not to.
As British Columbians know all too well, pipeline approvals are not simply a matter of technical feasibility. Social, legal and cumulative environmental impacts all factor into a public interest decision that ultimately must be made by accountable, elected members of government.
During the election campaign Trudeau and the Federal Liberal candidates in coastal B.C. seemed to understand this. Their apparent willingness to cancel Enbridge and demand a fair, open, rigorous review process for Kinder Morgan led to them gaining 15 seats while the Conservatives lost 11 seats in our province.
Then the lobbyists swooped in. Now that the Liberals have been in government for most of a year, the backroom pressure and political horse trading is starting to chip away at the government’s campaign promises.
Democracy unfortunately requires eternal vigilance. The people of B.C., together with First Nations, have kept Big Oil and their cheerleaders in Alberta, Ottawa and Bay Street from building a west coast oil port for decades. Together we have held off the greediest industry on the planet for years, thanks to concerted pressure on political decision-makers.
These hearings are part of that seemingly never-ending story. So before you throw up your hands in frustration, remember the real audience is not the panel itself — it’s your fellow citizens and the MPs watching the process unfold. The decision ultimately will be made by our elected representatives in Ottawa and Victoria.
They may have forgotten how to listen. They may have forgotten how strongly British Columbians oppose the expansion of oil tankers in our waters. These town halls, slapdash though they may be, will be our chance to remind them. Here’s where you can sign up. If the government is smart, they’ll pull the plug on these summer roundtables and come back with a real process.
Will Horter is the strategy director for Dogwood Initiative. He is based in Victoria, B.C.