When the Northern Gateway pipeline project was announced, it was evident it would stir up emotions
The Alberta oil patch thought the pipeline made perfect sense and, after what was expected to be routine set of hearings, the project would be approved and completed before the end of 2014.
Environmentalists were concerned about possible damage to the environment, either due to a pipeline leak or if one of the tankers in transit from the port at Kitimat to the open sea had an accident spilling bitumin along some of the continent's most pristine coastline.
First Nations were concerned about the pipeline's impact on their land claims and fishing groundsÂ
The National Energy Board (NEB) was charged with holding hearings on the project and then making a decision as to whether it should proceed.
You would have thought that, given these concerns from a substantial number of individuals and organizations, the NEB would have attempted to maximize inclusiveness in the hearings process.
The board could have included meetings with groups most vocal in their opposition to reassure them they would be heard, that the final decision was not already predetermined and that demonstrations disrupting the hearings would work to their disadvantage. But this never happened.
The company proposing to build the line, Enbridge, executed a perfect chain of public relations blunders. It ridiculed people who suggested that Prince Rupert would be a safer port. It said refining the bitumen either before it was piped to the coast or before it was loaded on tankers for shipment overseas would be too costly or would find no foreign markets. It did little to bring on side First Nations whose land claims the pipeline would traverse.
The federal government did its part to raise public concerns. The government called into question the sources of financing for some of the opposition,Â gave the NEB a strict time limit for the hearings,Â amended legislation to change the nature of future hearings for similar projects, and dropped hints that, regardless of what the NEB decided, cabinet could overrule it.
By showing strong support for the economic importance of the project to diversify markets for the product of the tar sands, the feds also showed a tin ear for the electorate of B.C.
No wonder some groups felt the hearings were window dressing and that the outcome was a fait accompli.
What, they asked, did they have to lose, so why not demonstrate at the hearings? This, in turn generated what I call a "fuhrer-bunker" mentality by the NEB.
In Victoria, then in Vancouver and finally here in Kelowna, the hearings were held in cramped facilities where there was virtually no public participation other than a closed-circuit signal sent to a facility several blocks away.
The hearing sites were filled with police officers and presenters and journalists were escorted to and from the actual site.
One person making a presentation to the board, Bill Darnell, a founder of Greenpeace, said he found the arrangements for the proceedings "profoundly undemocratic and offensive to Canada's foundation principles of natural justice and democratic decision making."
To Darnell, this called into question the open and impartial requirement for the hearings.
Earlier, the NEB cancelled some hearings, arguing its members felt physically threatened. I think it highly unlikely that anyone, no matter how passionate their concerns about the pipeline, would wish to harm the commissioners. So why did the NEB over-react thereby undercutting its own credibility?
The NEB's over-reaction needs to be explained by the government. No matter what the final decision, natural justice will not be seen to have taken place, and that unfortunate.
David Bond is an author and retired bank economist. Email: