Brian Lee CrowleyThe recent disruption of hearings into the Energy East pipeline in Montreal are an affront to the rule of law and the will of the democratic majority, write Brian Lee Crowley and Senator Doug Black in the Sun chain of newspapers.

Ottawa must therefore stand up for the integrity and credibility of the National Energy Board in the face of this disruptive threat.

By Brian Lee Crowley and Senator Doug Black, Sept. 9, 2016

It’s a matter of grave national concern that the National Energy Board (NEB)’s Montreal hearings on the Energy East pipeline have had to be suspended indefinitely due to disruptive protests. A tiny number of protesters who dogmatically oppose resource development are using intimidation to achieve by the back door what they cannot achieve directly: shutting down pipeline development they don’t like.

Debate is the lifeblood of democracy. Elections, referenda, parliamentary votes, and other processes provide an opportunity for Canadians to persuade their fellow citizens of the rightness of their positions. May the best argument win.

Whether and how Canada should develop its natural resources has moved to the centre of the national debate in recent years and the outcome has generally been governments that broadly support development. There have been nuances and equivocations on specific projects or broader issues such as down-stream emissions, but it is fair to say that opponents of resource development have largely failed to convince their fellow citizens. The result is that Canadian governments led by Conservatives, Liberals, and New Democrats have advanced and support well-regulated resource development across the country.

The NEB, whose authority the protesters reject, is an evidence-based administrative tribunal designed to examine energy projects and provide independent advice to the government on whether the project should proceed. Its mandate assumes that responsible resource development is in the national interest.

Nowhere in its mandate is the NEB expected to arbitrate questions of values or beliefs. That is the role of politics.

The goal of the board’s hearings is to determine whether a specific project meets Canada’s high standards with regards to environmental, safety, and social considerations, and should ultimately receive the government’s approval. It does this through a scrupulously fair process designed to ensure that opponents and proponents are heard in a safe and respectful environment. Yet the board failed to provide the security necessary for this to happen in Montreal.

The NEB, however, is no place to confront questions such as whether resource development is in the national interest. Nowhere in its mandate is the NEB expected to arbitrate questions of values or beliefs. That is the role of politics.

Opponents of resource development know they have lost the political argument. They’re now resorting to Luddite attacks on regulatory institutions and even lawlessness to try to get their way. The result is not just project delays and missed opportunities. It is a diminishment of the rule of law. It is clear that some will simply never grant “social licence” to pipelines or resource development.

If the federal government will not vigorously defend the credibility of the NEB now, its silence will embolden the zealots.

It goes without saying that we ought to have the strongest and most stringent standards for project approvals. The NEB, moreover, must guard its independence and refrain from appearing to prejudge any particular proposal. This is why its commissioners’ private meeting with former Quebec Premier Jean Charest on Energy East was so ill-advised.

But as a society committed to fairness and the rule of law, we cannot sacrifice these values in the pursuit of “social licence” from small minorities who have determined that their opinion is the only one that matters. That is not democracy; it is mob rule.

If the federal government will not vigorously defend the credibility of the NEB now, its silence will embolden the zealots. The suspended hearings are about more than a single project. Bigger issues are now at stake.

Brian Lee Crowley is the managing director at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. Douglas Black is an independent senator and former energy lawyer.