A federal panel reviewing the Enbridge Northern Gateway project will not allow the general public to sit in on oral statement sessions in Victoria and Vancouver, a government official has confirmed.
For the first time in the long review process, which has seen the panel travel widely across northern British Columbia over the past year, those wanting to witness oral presentations will have to go to separate "viewing venues" where they can watch live broadcasts.
In both cities, presenters are allowed to bring one guest with them, but the main audience will be in different hotels, dozens of blocks away.
Kristen Higgins, a spokeswoman for the National Energy Board, said the panel decided to separate the public from the presenters because of concerns about possible disruptions.
"The panel was really wanting to make sure that the process went through orderly, smoothly, efficiently," she said. "So they thought that they would take a pro-active approach for Victoria and Vancouver and make sure that they could hear all of the oral presenters in a way that there weren't any possible disruptions."
She said the panel has faced protests before, without significant problems, but members were concerned about the size of the crowds that might be drawn to the hearings in B.C.'s two biggest cities.
"Victoria and Vancouver are the largest, they are large urban areas and the panel was just looking at those two communities where there has been a history of protests around this project," Ms. Higgins said.
Last fall, a Defend Our Coast rally drew several thousand people to the legislature in Victoria to urge the provincial government to oppose the pipeline that Enbridge is proposing to build from Alberta to the B.C. coast.
Ms. Higgins said there have been no warnings of protests this week in Victoria, where the panel sits from this Friday until next Friday, or in Vancouver, where the hearings will be held Jan 14 to 18 and Jan. 30 to Feb. 1.
The panel will also hear oral statements on Jan. 28 in Kelowna, where the public will be allowed to sit in on the presentations. Ms. Higgins said about 700 people are expected to make oral statements to the panel in the three cities.
Environmentalists say the move of separating the audience from speakers is anti-democratic.
"I find it disappointing that the public hearings in Victoria and Vancouver will be less public than anywhere else," said Gwen Barlee of the Wilderness Committee. "This is an important issue. People in Victoria and Vancouver want to be heard … and here you have a panel trying to mute public opposition."
Ms. Barlee said the oral statement section of the hearings is supposed to be about giving the public a voice, and it is wrong to lock the audience out of the room where the presentations are being made. "The people should be welcome," she said. "Instead they have a process that will restrict how people engage."
Vicky Husband, an independent and leading environmentalist in B.C., said she is shocked the public won't be able to see and hear her in person when she makes an oral statement to the panel in Victoria.
"I see it as an abuse of the democratic process," Ms. Husband said. "People have been telling me they are upset about not being in the room. It's about the importance of bearing witness."
Ms. Husband said that when she speaks she wants to address her remarks to the public, not just to a panel sitting in a room isolated from her audience. "It's not just about me speaking to the panel. I feel like I am speaking to the public and for the public too," she said. "The public should be allowed in."
In Victoria, the panel will hear oral statements at the Delta Victoria Ocean Pointe Resort, while the audience viewing venue will be at the Ramada Victoria. In Vancouver, the panel will hear presentations at the Sheraton Vancouver Wall Centre, and the audience will be at the Westin Bayshore for part of the hearings and then at the Vancouver Marriott Pinnacle Downtown.