Conservation activists are attacking as anti-democratic Ottawa's concern that the approval process for a controversial pipeline risks being hijacked by foreign interests and "radical groups."
Hearings have not started on the Northern Gateway, a proposed pipeline that would carry oil from Alberta to the Pacific coast, but a huge number of people have signed up to speak. In recent days the federal government has been making critical noises about how long the process might take and alleging foreign meddling.
"It's an extraordinary position for a government to stake out in a third-party regulatory review that has not begun yet," Gerald Butts, president and CEO of WWF Canada said in a phone interview Monday morning. "Just because a lot of people want to talk, it doesn't mean the process is broken. In fact, a lot of people would say the opposite."
In a weekend interview with The Globe and Mail, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said his department is examining ways to help speed up environmental reviews.
"What we are looking at is providing definitive timelines from start to finish on the regulatory process," he said. "The objective should be that these reviews would no longer go on for many, many years. They would have a definitive timeline that would provide certainty to the participants who are sponsoring the project."
Although he would not comment on whether any such changes would affect this particular project, the prospect of changing the rules was greeted with alarm by conservation groups.
"They're using the exact same language that the Harris government used in the 1990s," said John Bennett, executive director of Sierra Club Canada, referring to the Progressive Conservative government in Ontario. "Streamlining, red tape. What we got was Walkerton. Dead people."
He is concerned that the regulatory system will be replaced by "a giant rubber stamp."
"It's a fundamental question of democracy," he argued. "Do economic rights supplant democratic rights? And this government is saying they do."
The Northern Gateway idea gained more importance in Ottawa since a decision on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to the United States was deferred. Environmental groups and some aboriginal bands in Canada are strongly opposed to the project, but the federal government has chosen to draw attention to what it believes is foreign influence underpinning criticism.
Last week Prime Minister Stephen Harper warned of "the use of foreign money to really overload the public consultation phase" and Mr. Oliver was to release Monday an open letter that warned about "jet-setting celebrities" funded by foreign special interest groups pursuing "radical ideological ends."
Conservation groups shrugged off the foreign influence allegation as a classic diversion, arguing that the real opposition is by locals. Besides, they noted, foreign capital is being used to help sell the pipeline idea.
"Most of the companies involved in the tarsands are foreign-owned," said Mike Hudema, a climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace based in Edmonton. "There's a tremendous amount of foreign money trying to influence this process. It's far greater than the amount of foreign environmental dollars coming in."
With files from The Globe and Mail's John Ibbitson and Gloria Galloway