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Shell attempt to bar Greenpeace from oil sands hearing denied

EDMONTON - Shell Canada has failed in an attempt to use the federal government's new environmental assessment rules to try to bar Greenpeace from hearings on the company's proposed Jackpine oilsands mine in northern Alberta .

In a letter to the agency conducting the assessment of the plan, Shell lawyers had argued that Greenpeace and two university professors no longer had standing under new rules contained in the Harper Tories' omnibus budget bill.

The new rules limit presenters to those who are directly affected by a project or those who have relevant information or expertise. The lawyers said that meant some people who signed up to appear at the hearings when they begin Oct. 29 no longer qualified.

"Allowing individuals and organizations, prompted by Internet forms, to participate in the hearing that have no direct interest in the project and that have no relevant information or expertise will create precisely those types of inefficiencies that the legislators sought to avoid through the enactment of the (legislation)," said the letter, dated Oct. 4.

But in a letter released late Wednesday, the agency turned down Shell's request. It said panel members were capable of keeping things on track.

"The panel will provide more specific direction on this point directly to the interested parties whose written material lies outside the scope (of the project)."

The Shell letter specifically targeted Greenpeace campaigner Keith Stewart, who had planned to present a report entitled Harper's Shell Game: Why Tar Sands Pipelines Are Not in the National Interest. It also mentions two York University professors, Anna Zalik and Isaac Osuoka.

The letter, which added there could be others who should be denied a chance to appear before the panel, said exclusions were necessary to "focus" the review.

"Shell is concerned that allowing these parties to participate in the hearing as they have intended will threaten the integrity and fairness of the hearing process," the lawyers write.

Stewart said Shell's original letter is proof that the federal Tories are deliberately trying to restrict debate around resource projects.

"It's confirmation," he said. "We said the federal government was changing the rules to benefit the oil companies, and here's an oil company clearly saying the federal government changed the rules to make it easier for us to get our project approved."

Stewart said the assessment is being held to determine if the project is in the public interest, not to determine the conditions under which it will proceed, and the hearing needs to hear a broad range of testimony.

"Shell really wants to turn this into a review of 'how do we do this and where do we put in the parking lots?' rather than 'should we be allowed to do this at all?'"

A spokesman for Shell said in an email that there will be a huge amount of information to go through at the hearing.

"To maintain its fairness and integrity, it allows those who are directly impacted or who have relevant information or expertise on the project to question the application in person. Ultimately, the panel will also review written submissions and make a decision on who is granted standing to speak.

"We look forward to responding to these individuals or groups at the hearing.”

Shell has pointed out that the Jackpine expansion entered the regulatory process in 2007. The company says it has filed 18,000 pages of information with the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.

The expansion, about 70 kilometres north of Fort McMurray on the east side of the Athabasca River, would bring Shell's total production at its Jackpine facilities to about 300,000 barrels a day. The plan is to mine new areas and construct processing facilities, utilities and infrastructure.

Other groups have questions about the project.

Regulatory filings detail concerns from federal scientists over whether growth in the industry has outpaced the company's assessment of cumulative effects, how changing flow in the Athabasca River will affect contaminant levels and how well Shell is able to control effluent from artificial lakes that will be used to store tailings.

An environmental think-tank says Shell's own figures suggest planned oilsands development now on the books could push air pollution past limits set out in Alberta's new management plan for the region.

Local aboriginal bands have filed a constitutional challenge to the hearing, saying both Shell and the federal government have failed to adequately consult with them in the project's design, which will make it difficult for them to exercise their treaty rights to use the land for traditional activities.

The constitutional challenge is to be heard Oct. 23.

--Bob Weber reports for Canadian Press.

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