by Josh Paterson
West Coast Environmental Law

Over the past week, citizens packed the inaugural meetings of the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines’ so-called “Community Advisory Board” in Kitimat, where the company’s proposed crude oil supertanker port would be built, and in nearby Terrace. Enbridge representatives, including president John Carruthers, heard a loud message that the federal government’s environmental assessment process is flawed because it doesn’t cover all the issues that need to be discussed in order to make an informed decision about the project.

Many local residents called for an independent public inquiry that will answer the questions people have about the project’s potential impacts. Local business people also said that they are concerned about process to approve the pipeline.

At the first meeting in Kitimat, it became clear that Enbridge’s “community advisory boards” aren’t designed to be a genuine community consultation about the proposed project. Before the meeting even got started, Enbridge’s facilitators (who were hired from an outside firm) tried to prevent about twenty concerned Kitimat residents from coming into the meeting, claiming that the room was too small. After the “uninvited” residents argued persistently for about ten minutes, the facilitators finally let them in. The facilitators initially said that the community members could stay for only thirty minutes, but they eventually gave up on the idea of kicking them out. Of course, the room had plenty of room to hold everyone. It was an odd start to a process that Enbridge’s facilitators claimed was supposed to be inclusive. The controversy highlighted the fact that these “community” meetings are by “invitation only”, and are not intended to be welcoming for members of the public.

Many of the community members who filled the meetings made clear that Enbridge’s advisory board meetings were putting the cart before the horse by focusing on how the project should be built, prior to community decisions about whether the project should be built. Enbridge’s “community” meetings start with the assumption that the pipeline is going to be built and that supertankers will be allowed on BC’s coast. Instead, residents said they first need a chance to engage in a process that asks the critical questions about whether they want to have oil and condensate pipelines in the first place, or whether they want oil and condensate supertankers coming to our coast. To make those decisions, residents said they need answers to big-picture questions such as the impact of lifting the 37-year-old ban on oil tankers along the coast, and how the tar sands expansion associated with the pipeline might affect Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, and the health of communities living near the tar sands. A great many Kitimat residents also said clearly that they want a decision-making process that respects the constitutionally-protected Aboriginal Title and Rights of First Nations who will be affected by Enbridge’s oil pipeline and tanker plans.

In Kitimat, given all of the interest in a public inquiry on the Enbridge project, the facilitators asked members of conservation groups to give a quick presentation on what that process might look like. This was promising, as it seemed as if there might be room to have a discussion about the sort of environmental assessment that people want for the project. However, after the presentation, Enbridge’s facilitators quickly tried to shut down that discussion and move on to other topics, even though many people in the room wanted to ask questions and have more discussion on the issue. The facilitators wanted to shove the discussion about a public inquiry into one of several “buckets” of topics for later discussion, rather than permit the discussion to continue. Some residents were upset, and decided to leave. Despite their assurances that the community would control the meeting’s agenda, the refusal of Enbridge’s facilitators to permit a more in-depth discussion made it feel as though they were driving the agenda, not the participants.

In Terrace, the facilitators also tried to push back any discussion of the environmental assessment process for the pipeline to some other meeting in the future, but it was clear that many participants want to have that discussion before anything else. Residents kept on asking questions about the process, and facilitators kept on trying to shut those questions down, saying that there’d be time to talk about it later as one of many “buckets” of concerns to be discussed.

Enbridge now says that it is now planning to have a dedicated, higher-level discussion with interested members of the community that will focus on what kind of public process should be used to assess the project. We’ll have to wait and see what form that discussion takes. Enbridge says that it wants a real dialogue with communities, and that it wants the best possible information to be out there in order for people to make a decision on the project. Assuming that’s true, hopefully Enbridge will join with people living on the pipeline and tanker route, and all over BC, in supporting a public inquiry into the project.