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Protesters demonstrate against the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline in Vancouver, in January. The proposed $5.5-billion project would pipe Alberta oil 1,200-kilometres across Alberta and British Columbia to the northwest coast community of Kitimat, where the oil will be shipped overseas by oil tankers.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Environmental hearings for new or altered pipelines have always been messy affairs – until now. The Conservative government has created a new rule requiring those who simply wish to write letters to the National Energy Board to obtain the board's approval in advance. Letter-writers have the right to write their letter if they can establish that they are directly affected by the pipeline in question. If they don't have a direct interest, but have specialized knowledge, the board may agree to hear from them.

We understand the need to streamline environmental hearings, but it's hard to accept that members of the general public who feel they have something to say need to prove their bona fides before sending in a letter. The board is being asked to use its time to read 10-page application forms full of detailed information, which may include curriculum vitae and references. This seems less like streamlining than a form of silencing.

And why the rush? Enbridge has applied to the National Energy Board to make changes to a 639-kilometre segment of its Line 9 pipeline through the most populous part of Canada, from southwestern Ontario through Toronto to Montreal. The application form for letter-writers and potential intervenors (who were, quite properly, screened in the past) became available on April 5, and the deadline for getting the applications in is April 19. Given the stakes, and the 15 months being allotted to the hearings, two weeks isn't much time.

Several municipalities along the route have indicated they have environmental concerns about Enbridge's proposed expansion of capacity, addition of heavy crude, and reversal of the pipe's flow. Individual members of the general public may not have the technical knowledge that the experts have. They may repeat one another. But the purpose of the NEB, an independent federal agency, is to regulate pipelines and energy development in the public interest. A public-interest body that hears only from experts and the directly affected may lack some of the context for assessing the public interest. The CRTC, for one, is happy to receive letters from all Canadians.

The legislation that created the new rules took effect last summer, following the government's overheated attacks on supposed radical foreigners trying to undermine the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline from Alberta to British Columbia. "The global economy is now presenting Canada with an historic opportunity to take full advantage of our immense resources," Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said. "But we must seize the moment." The moment has been duly seized. The messy democratic process has been cleaned up. But at what cost?