Canadians who want to tell the National Energy Board what they think about proposed pipeline projects – either in person or in writing – must now complete a 10-page application form proving they would be directly affected by the development or that they have relevant expertise.
The new rules the NEB unveiled on Friday stem from provisions in omnibus budget legislation drafted by Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government and passed into law last year. Environmental groups say they are the Conservatives' response to the thousands of people who indicated an interest in voicing opposition to Enbridge Inc.'s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline.
The first test of the new procedure for applying to have a say in a pipeline development is being conducted in Ontario, where the NEB is assessing the environmental and economic effects of Enbridge's plan to reverse its Line 9 to bring 300,000 barrels a day of heavy crude from Sarnia to Montreal.
The route of the pipeline roughly follows Highway 401, crossing all rivers and streams flowing into Lake Ontario. Several municipalities, including Hamilton, Mississauga, Toronto and Kingston, have written to the NEB to express concerns.
Ordinary Canadians who want to participate at the NEB hearings, or even write a letter to offer their thoughts, must first print the application form that was made available online on Friday, answer 10 pages of questions, then file it with both the NEB and Enbridge. And they must do so by April 19.
The NEB also encourages those wishing to make submissions to include résumés and references. Only after an application is approved will the board accept a letter.
"I understand it does look quite daunting," said NEB spokeswoman Whitney Punchak, who pointed out that people need to complete only the sections of the application relating to issues they believe pertain to them.
"This is in place to make sure that it's fair and efficient and that we really hear from those who are affected by the project," Ms. Punchak said.
As to the two-week deadline, Ms. Punchak said the board has been working since February to alert people to the process. "Two weeks should be plenty of time to fill out the application," she said.
But Adam Scott of the environmental activist group Environmental Defence said few Canadians are likely to be aware that the opportunity for participation in the approvals process for the Line 9 pipeline is now open, and will close in short order.
"Let's say you found out about this Line 9 thing in May and you said, 'Oh, this goes right through my neighbourhood, I would like to write a letter to the process that's ongoing,' " said Mr. Scott. "They would send you a letter back saying, 'Sorry, you didn't apply during the two-week window for participation status so we can't accept your letter.' "
And even those people who complete their applications on time may not be able to convince the board that they should be heard, he said, because the NEB has not spelled out what it means to be directly affected.
Keith Stewart of Greenpeace called the process Kafkaesque, saying it will be more work for the board to read the applications than simply to read the letters from people who want to offer input. "I think it's a basic tenet of democracy that you should be allowed to get your voice heard," Mr. Stewart said.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May called the application process "an outrage" that violates the rules of natural justice and fairness. "Just when you think things cannot get worse under Harper, they do," Ms. May said.
Peter Julian, the energy and natural resources critic for the New Democrats, said it is clear that the Conservatives don't think the public should be heard on these projects. "I think it's showing profound disrespect for Canadians to say that they don't have a role in the process," Mr. Julian said.
And Liberal MP Ted Hsu, who attended an NEB information session about the pipeline proposal in Kingston earlier this week, said he believes the Line 9 reversal will be a test of the new legislation and how much public input will be permitted. "So I think everybody should try to participate and see what happens."
Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said the NEB wants to hear from people who are impacted by the project.
"Focusing consultation on individuals directly affected by a proposal before the NEB and experts with relevant information or expertise, ensures the review is informed by the facts," said Mr. Oliver. "There have been no changes to timelines for applying to participate in the public consultation process."