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A Kinder Morgan pipeline is in dispute.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Lynne Quarmby has spent her career as a research biologist, and worries about the impact that booming oil sands production will have on Canada's climate emissions and its vast boreal forest.

So, the chair of Simon Fraser University's microbiology department decided to speak out when the National Energy Board announced it would be reviewing Kinder Morgan Inc.'s proposed expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline that will carry nearly 900,000 barrels a day of oil sands crude to the Port of Vancouver for export to Pacific Rim countries.

When she looked at the NEB's application to intervene, however, it was clear that the federal regulator had no intention of considering the environmental impacts that would result from the production of the crude the pipeline would carry.

So, Dr. Quarmby dropped the application and prepared for a battle.

"I'm ready to fight this," she said in an interview. "We can't be building massive new infrastructure for fossil fuels … we have to be ramping down [reliance on fossil fuels], not ramping it up."

Dr. Quarmby along with several British Columbians whom the NEB has refused to hear on the Trans Mountain expansion have hired a lawyer and are now planning to launch a legal challenge to the board's process, including the strict timelines and the limiting of intervenors to those who face direct impacts or have special knowledge.

The criticism of the board's approach on the Kinder Morgan review is part of a cross-country backlash against rules imposed on the National Energy Board by the federal government two years ago, which aimed to speed up project reviews.

In the United States, the Obama administration has made the climate impacts of the Keystone XL pipeline a central issue in its long-running review of that project. In Canada, Ottawa has largely left regulation of greenhouse gas emissions in the oil sands to the Alberta government, and made clear pipeline reviews should not be used as forums to attack the environmental record of the oil sands.

"The process right now is flawed both in terms of how it restricts the public from participation and the restrictions in issues that are being addressed by the National Energy Board," said veteran activist Tzeporah Berman, who is organizing the B.C. effort.

"What's at stake is a fair and balanced democratic process," Ms. Berman said Tuesday, adding that she expects to move forward with the legal challenge in the next 10 days.

Kinder Morgan acknowledged Tuesday that people have concerns that the company believes are outside the scope of the project, including the environmental impact of oil sands growth.

"As part of our engagement efforts, we're listening and seeking feedback, but are focused on what actions Trans Mountain can take to address the issues within the scope of our project," said Scott Stonnes, Kinder Morgan Canada's vice-president for regulatory and finance.

NEB spokeswoman Sarah Kiley said the board typically has not looked at upstream impacts from pipeline projects. Federal legislation requires it to consider issues that are "directly related to the pipeline," although the NEB has discretion to decide the scope.

In the case of Trans Mountain, decisions about who could participate "were made on a case-by-case basis," Ms. Kiley said. Would-be intervenors had to show they had "shown a specific and detailed interest" that was directly related to the project.

"Upstream is the purview of the provinces and the National Energy Board's mandate has always been about the infrastructure and not the upstream," said Brenda Kenny, chief executive officer of the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association.

Critics have also launched challenges to the NEB over its approval of Enbridge Inc.'s Line 9 project that will move western crude into Quebec, and over the board's review on the Northern Gateway project, which recommends federal cabinet approve the project, subject to 209 conditions.

The federal board recently released the issues it will consider in TransCanada Corp.'s proposed $12-billion Energy East pipeline. The absence of upstream impacts on that list prompted complaints at a hearing last week held by the Ontario Energy Board, which will report back to the provincial government on what position it should take at the hearing.

A spokeswoman for Ontario Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli, Beckie Codd-Downey, said the OEB should assess the project's impact on "the natural environment and climate in Ontario."