OTTAWA - Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver is defending a new 10-page application form that the public must fill out before being allowed to comment on proposed pipeline projects.
The National Energy Board rolled out the new screening process this month for consultations on the reversal of Enbridge's Line 9 pipeline from Sarnia, Ont., to Montreal.
Before submissions will even be considered, the public and experts must first apply to the board.
Oliver told a Commons committee the rules are not designed to stop the public from participating and that anyone directly affected by the pipeline changes must be heard by the National Energy Board, citing the example of a farmer whose fields the pipeline crosses.
Oliver says the "public policy objective" of the screening came out of the Northern Gateway pipeline hearings, where 4,400 individuals registered to comment but only about 1,400 "actually showed up."
The minister describes such tactics as an attempt to "game the system."
"The clear objective behind certain groups was to delay the process and to defeat the project," Oliver said.
Inside the committee room, NDP MP Claude Gravelle asked Oliver if he could "translate" the following government instructions to would-be public interveners on the Enbridge pipeline:
"Before you continue with this form, refer to the board's guidance document on section 55.2 and participation in a Facilities Hearing attached to the Hearing Order OH-002-2013 as Appendix VI, and again as Appendix III of Procedural Update No. 1 for OH-002-2013," said Gravelle, reading from the instructions.
After Conservative MPs on the committee tried to run interference on Gravelle's line of inquiry, Oliver responded to the New Democrat: "This is a ridiculous question and you know it."
In the case of the Line 9 pipeline hearings, the public was given two weeks — until this Friday, April 19 — to complete and submit the application to be heard.
Peter Julian, the NDP natural resources critic, called the application form for public participation "convoluted and complex."
"What they're trying to do is say if you're not directly impacted that you have no place at all, and they're drawing the lines in a very careful way to exclude the vast majority of the Canadian public," said Julian.
Despite his trouble sorting through the bureaucratic wording in the National Energy Board's application, Oliver later insisted to reporters that "it's not as complex as it's made out to be."
"If you are an expert wanting to testify, then the form is a little bit longer. But an expert, presumably, can fill it out," said the minister.
"For the average person, it's not complex at all."
Reversing the directional flow of Line 9 to east-west may be one of the less controversial pipeline hearings currently on the public radar.
A 200-kilometre stretch was already approved for reversal in 2011 and the remaining 600-plus kilometres to Montreal is now up for review.
The same pipeline, built in the 1970s, previously carried oil from western Canada east to Montreal before the line was reversed to bring imported oil to Sarnia from Montreal in 1999.