Unrealistic expectations the downfall of Rupert Joint Review Panel hearings, Enbridge
The reaction to the how the Joint Review Panel hearings in Prince Rupert played-out has not been positive. Immediately after the hearings ended pipeline opponents said they were frustrated that the panel's procedural rules did not allow for intervenors to directly criticize the project in their testimony.
Enbridge also has a dim view of how the proceedings went, but for different reasons.
The company says that the biggest problem was that presenters flagrantly disobeyed the panel's rules and that claims of intervenors being muzzled by these rules are the result of people having unrealistic expectations born of not being properly informed of how the process is supposed to work.
“I don't think the media has done a very poor job of explaining what the oral hearings are all about and what the restrictions are . . . the expectation was that it would be an exchange of views between the people presenting at the hearings and Enbridge. That's not what they're set up for,” says the energy company's chief representative, Paul Stanway.
“You could sense in the room that there was an expectation that it was an opportunity for people to have their concerns addressed and for us to make some sort of response. That's not the way these hearings are set up.”
The Prince Rupert hearings, intervenor's were allowed for the first time to give “oral evidence.” But Panel's rules say that only traditional Aboiriginal knowledge and personal experiences about the potential effects of the pipeline counts as oral evidence.
At the centre of the issue is procedural direction four, which states explicitly what is not considered oral evidence: technical or scientific information, the opinions and views of others, opinions on what decision the panel should make or opinions of the project itself, recommendations on what the panel should decide or what conditions to impose, and finally, asking questions of the panel including rhetorical ones. Most of these things must be left in their written submission to the panel.
Stanway says that speakers at last week's hearings had no excuse to not understand what the rules for the hearing were.
“I think all the intervenors understand the rules, they had it explained to them a number of times, the panel has reissued the guidelines a couple of times. I think the rules are well understood, but not everybody is willing to abide by them,” says Stanway.
The panel's rules also prevent the company from responding or refuting any of what is being said by intervenors. So, the company is caught in a catch-22 where the rules say they cannot respond to the assertions of the speakers – assertions that Stanway says were filled with inaccuracies to begin with, but couldn't say how so – but by objecting to others not following the panel's rules they end up being accused by pipeline opponents of using them to muzzle debate.
Stanway says if people are looking for a debate on the merits or flaws of the project, that opportunity is coming, but Prince Rupert's hearings were not it.
“At the beginning of September we've got the the formal hearings. That's an opportunity for Enbridge and opponents of the project to cross-examine expert witnesses, under oath. Then there's another opportunity called final arguments and all the intervenors will be able to make the sort of statements that Mr. Cullen wanted to make,” says Stanway.
At last week's hearings, MP Nathan Cullen, began to criticize the way Enbridge had gone about promoting the project and of it's interactions with First Nations before he was stopped by an objection from Enbridge's lawyer.
“There's an opportunity to do all the things people are asking for, just not at that particular hearing last week. Which was set up for people to provide oral evidence that could not be provided in written form. I don't think that's well understood," says Stanway.
The Joint Review Panel is scheduled return to Prince Rupert on April 16 and 17.