As a politician Nathan Cullen is accustomed to public speaking, but the MP for Skeena Bulkley-Valley said he felt intimidated at the Northern Gateway pipeline hearings Monday.
Cullen said the National Energy Board (NEB) process has put up too many barriers to public access and believes Enbridge, the company behind the $6.5 billion plan to connect Alberta's oilsands with Kitmat, is too confrontational with interveners such as himself.
"They've definitely set the process up to intimidate from the company's side of things," he said after spending most of the after session in front of the Joint Review Panel (JRP) asking questions of Northern Gateway witnesses. "They're pretty aggressive. You ask direct questions and you get absolute sideways answers, it's like Question Period in the House of Commons rather than a panel that's interested in satisfying the public."
Cullen, who doesn't have formal legal training, said there are too many lawyers in the room to allow the process to go smoothly.
"I find the process very awkward, it actually presents a bit of barrier for people to come and be able to just hear direct answers to direct questions," he said.
Enbridge vice-president for western access Janet Holder said the company does have many representatives in the room, but most of them are experts there to answer questions from interveners.
"At the front of the room we have two lawyers, 13 witnesses and I believe nine support people," Holder said. "There's a lot of people up there, but from our perspective we're having to answer questions that came from a variety of different directions and a variety of different interveners."
She said the process was set up by the NEB and dismissed the notion Northern Gateway was trying to intimidate any interveners. Holder suggested the company's own witnesses are under a lot of pressure due to the volume of information they need to know in order to answer all the questions posed to them.
"I'm sitting in this room getting prepared for when I have to testify in Prince Rupert and if anybody feels intimidated it's actually the witnesses," she said. "It's a very tough job, it's a very stressful job for them."
Brenda Gouglas, who represented the Fort St. James Sustainability Group, wasn't phased by the process when she asked her questions earlier Monday.
"It's up the individual to get engaged, to follow through and not to be afraid to sit in that chair and ask the questions," she said. "I don't have any lawyer background, I've got none of that, and I think it worked out OK."
During the hearings, Northern Gateway lawyer Dennis Langen objected to the way Cullen was asking his questions and said the MP was inferring too much in his preambles.
Cullen was frustrated with the answers he was getting, at one point asking JRP chairwoman Sheila Leggett for advice on how to proceed if he felt witnesses were avoiding the main thrust of his queries. She told him that it was up to his own discretion. The format of the hearings prevents interveners from badgering witnesses and Langen did object when Cullen attempted to re-ask questions.
The content of Cullen's questions themselves dealt in part with in which conditions diluted bitumen - one of the main products expected to be put down the pipeline - will sink. Cullen sparred with Northern Gateway expert Matthew Horn about the properties of the oil and pointed to a material safety and data sheet from Esso which said dilbit will sink after weathering.
Horn dismissed that conclusion and said the oil will only sink if it binds with particulate materials in the water. Cullen remained unconvinced.
"The only people we can find who actually think bitumen will float in water is Enbridge," he said. "Esso and other companies, when they've looked at this and done their own studies, say it's very likely to sink and if there's anything in the water, any dirt, any particulate matter at all, it is going to sink."
Holder said the company has reached out to outside experts regarding the properties of the oil and said her company's position is consistent with industry standards.
Cullen also talked about concerns that climate change could cause more landslides and had many questions about the regulatory process that would commence if the pipeline gets approval from the NEB.
The acrimonious session did end on a point of agreement. Enbridge vice-president for pipeline integrity Walter Kresic agreed with Cullen that there's a need for transparent laws around pipeline safety and that the company would support new legislation to address the current gap.
Cullen plans to bring up the issue with NDP natural resources critic Peter Julian and said his party would be willing to work with the governing Conservatives to get new laws on the books.
"The fact you have a company even like Enbridge saying we need better standards, more transparency and accountability to the public should speak volumes to the government," Cullen said said. "This will be one of things I'll be taking back to Ottawa from this, that we need to get on our toes because the public is demanding it."
Any new law must give the public more of an opportunity to participate in the process, according to Cullen.
"If the risks are too high, then the public needs a voice to say no," he said. "Right now the way legislation is designed in the country, the public has absolutely no way to stand in the way and stop a major project like this."
Cullen is scheduled to ask questions of the next Northern Gateway witness panel, perhaps next week. The Haisla Nation, which began its cross-examination late Monday afternoon, is expected to take up the bulk of Tuesday's sessions.