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Critics ask what's the rush at pipeline hearings by regulator in Edmonton

EDMONTON - Critics of a proposed pipeline project from the Fort McMurray region to Edmonton want to know why the province's energy regulator seems determined to rush the project's public review.

"The process is being rushed for the benefit of TransCanada to the detriment of landowners," said lawyer Keith Wilson, who represents businesses and farmers along the route.

Hearings opened Monday on the Grand Rapids plan for two new lines half-owned by TransCanada (TSX:TRP) that would have a combined peak capacity of more than one million barrels a day — more volume than Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway project.

It's the first hearing the Alberta Energy Regulator has held since replacing the Energy Resources Conservation Board and taking over duties from the province's Environment Department.

Wilson said the new regulator is hobbling public participation through tight timelines.

He points out that because the new hearings combine issues that used to be dealt with separately — the Grand Rapids hearings involve more than 90 different approvals under several different pieces of legislation — the burden on members of the public wishing to address them is greater than ever.

"It's a monumental task to landowners to respond to all that information."

TransCanada has changed its application four times since originally submitting it, the most recent version being released four weeks ago, Wilson added.

"(The process) gave TransCanada well over a year to work with the regulator on the process and now that it's time for the landowners to participate in the process they were given only a matter of weeks."

Important information illuminating concerns isn't even included in the application, Wilson said.

As well, lawyers have been given a maximum of two hours to cross-examine TransCanada officials, although the panel chairman said he'd be "flexible" with that.

"One of the things you learn as a lawyer early on is that if a witness knows there's a time limit, they just stonewall you — they just be evasive, they forget, they're slow, they run the clock on you," Wilson said.

Regulator spokesman Darin Barter said the new approach is more complex than the old one.

"We're going to see more applications discussed within the context of a single hearing," he said. "It really is an expanded role."

It's typical for a "flurry" of information to come in at the last minute, he said.

"This is very typical for a hearing. I don't think we've been in a situation where we're pushing people along. The hearing will take as long as it takes."

However, Barter acknowledged time limits — included in the legislation that created the new regulator — are intended to keep the hearing focused.

"We need a hearing that's going to be defined in length," he said. "We want to make sure that the issues that need to be brought forward are brought forward and we don't see a lot extraneous issues that don't relate directly to the application."

The hearing has been scheduled for three days in June and two weeks in mid-July.

Dalton Trenholm, a farmer and landholder along the proposed route, is concerned about TransCanada's plans to dig up topsoil this summer and not fully replace it until 2017.

"This is a long time to leave our topsoil out there — our resource — to collect weeds, suffer erosion, all of these things that we have to deal with when they're completed."

He said the company's changing mitigation plans have hobbled his attempts to articulate his concerns.

"We had to have everything in here by the sixth of June and we find out that as of last week some time that there's changes."

Wilson suggested the new regulator isn't making a great impression at the Grand Rapids hearings.

"This is the very first hearing of this new super-regulator that the government's been bragging about and so far we're not off to a good start."

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