Protesters and critics still have a voice but have been stripped of power to stall or kill Canadian oil and gas projects with delaying tactics, confirms the pioneer foray into new regulatory review and approval procedures.

The taming effect shows in the first ruling by Canada’s National Energy Board (NEB) on public participation in a pipeline case to be guided by a reform package that the Conservative government in Ottawa passed last year, titled the Jobs, Growth and Long-Term Prosperity Act (see Daily GPI, Aug. 27, 2012).

Of 177 groups and activists with no declared affiliations to organizations that demanded roles in the review of Enbridge Pipelines Inc.’s Line 9 Reversal proposal, 169 were granted a say (see Daily GPI, April 15). But 110, or two-thirds, of the approved participants were given only restricted rights to submit comment letters, a Canadian regulatory counterpart to newspaper letters to the editor.

The pioneer procedural ruling emphasized that in order to obtain full participation rights in Canadian energy development regulatory cases, groups and individuals alike must demonstrate that they are directly affected or have relevant expertise and will present evidence focused tightly on the projects seeking approval.

The NEB highlighted the new regime’s aim to start a brisk new era of regulatory efficiency by allowing only comment letters from project supporters such as the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, as well as critics including the Sierra Club of Canada.

As a major time-saver, the new procedures have abolished a spoken counterpart to comment letters that was formerly granted to all comers. Known as oral statements, the bygone right to make speeches to regulatory panels was used by protesters to add a year to the review and approval process for the last project commenced under the old regime: Enbridge’s Northern Gateway proposal for an oilsands pipeline from Alberta to a new tanker terminal on the northern Pacific Coast of British Columbia.

The Gateway project’s regulatory ordeal continues before a joint review panel of the NEB and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. The panel trekked out to communities across BC and Alberta in order to uphold the old right to be heard.

About 3,000 members of environmentalist and aboriginal rights protection groups turned the Gateway case into a marathon of repetitive sermons deploring fossil fuels, disruptive industry and especially the Alberta oilsands. The tactics were summed up in a nickname, “mob the mike [hearing room microphone].” Similar tactics contributed to a years-long delay of Canada’s northern natural gas production and pipeline proposal, the now-dormant Mackenzie Gas Project.

NEB chairman Gaetan Caron stated the nub of the stricter new regime in a speech to the recent spring annual meeting of the Canadian Association of Members of Public Utility Tribunals. “A board hearing must not become a popularity contest,” said Caron.

He drew a sharp line between regulatory responsibilities and wider political concerns such as fossil fuel use, carbon emissions, climate change, and contributions of pipelines to prolonging oil and natural gas development as opposed to more environmentally ideal alternatives. “NEB regulation is about specific projects, whereas public policy is typically about much broader objectives at the societal level,” said Caron.

“Since the NEB makes project-specific determinations, it naturally works in a different sphere than government policy. Given this role, the NEB does not involve itself in telling policymakers what policy to adopt.”

The Enbridge Line 9 case is a modest rehearsal for far larger Canadian development schemes. The current first outing for the new regulatory regime is a C$129-million pipeline reversal program, to replace westbound flows of oil imports with 300,000 eastbound b/d from Alberta and the northwestern U.S. on a 639-kilometer (396-mile) leg of the Enbridge system across Ontario and Quebec, for use by Montreal refineries and possibly for exports from tanker docks on the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Much bigger developments in the offing include:

Kinder Morgan kick-started the regulatory review of the Trans Mountain plan by filing a formal project description at the NEB in recent days. An open season auction of capacity bookings on Energy East is scheduled to wrap up June 15. The three most advanced LNG proposals have obtained sites and NEB gas export licenses, and the BC government has opened talks on terminal locations with the others.

The Conservative national and Alberta governments describe the big projects as parts of a grand design for making Canada into an “energy superpower.” All arouse environmental and aboriginal resistance. But the strength of the pro-development agenda showed in a BC provincial election May 14, when the Liberals won an enlarged majority on a platform that pledged government support for LNG and shale gas projects and accused the left-leaning New Democratic Party opposition of endangering livelihoods by opposing pipelines and calling for an environmental inquiry into fracking.

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