The Harper government has launched an all-out campaign against opponents of the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline as it seeks to blunt a global campaign by environmentalists to halt booming oil sands development.
With regulatory hearings set to begin in Kitimat, B.C., Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver singled out a Canadian charity, Tides Canada Inc., for channelling U.S. donor money to pipeline opponents, while the Prime Minister's Office took aim at the Washington-based Natural Resources Defense Council.
In an interview Monday, Mr. Oliver deliver a blunt message – that the independent panel reviewing the Gateway pipeline should not allow foreign-backed opponents to hijack the hearings and kill the project through tactical delays.
"There are groups that are financing foreign intervention in the regulatory process," Mr. Oliver said. He said the groups are following a clear tactic of attempting to drag out the hearings in the hope that the $6.6-billion project will collapse.
"These are projects of enormous national significance – in terms of job creation and creating revenues to fund social programs – and we think decisions about these Canadian projects should be made by Canadians," Mr. Oliver said.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper warned last week of "foreign money" being used to overload the review process, which must provide time for 4,000 people who have indicated a desire to address the panel. A PMO spokesman said Monday that Mr. Harper was referring to groups like the well-connected NRDC, whose advisory committee includes such Hollywood notables as Robert Redford and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Environmental groups say the Harper government is engaging in diversionary tactics aimed at tarnishing the image of pipeline opponents and deflecting attention from the serious risks posed by the project.
The government will bring forward new rules to set strict timelines on future environmental hearings on major energy projects. But Mr. Oliver said Monday that those new rules will not affect the current Gateway review, which is being conduct by an independent three-person panel representing the National Energy Board and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.
The panel has already pushed back the deadline for concluding its work by a year, citing the huge number of people who want to appear before it.
While Mr. Oliver insists Ottawa won't intervene, the panel will clearly take into account the government's support for the pipeline as being in the national interest and its insistence that the review should not be derailed by delaying tactics, said Brenda Kenny, president of the Canadian Energy Pipelines Association.
"These panels operate in a policy context set by the government," Ms. Kenny said. "Policy interests do influence – as they should – independent panel decisions."
Mr. Harper says the Gateway pipeline is in the national interest as part of an effort to diversify crude oil exports away from the United States toward fast-growing Asian markets. He has attached added urgency to the project since the U.S. government delayed a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, which had been intended to deliver oil-sands bitumen to the massive refining hub on the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Many of the same groups that were prominent in the Keystone battle have been gearing up for the Gateway hearing – seen as the next round in what has become a global effort to choke off oil-sands development that would result in growing emissions of greenhouse gases.
In fighting back, industry supporters have been targeting the foreign groups that are helping to finance opposition to the oil sands within Canada. Leading the charge has been a pro-industry group known as Ethicaloil.org, which was founded by Alykhan Velshi, now director of planning in the Prime Minister's Office.
EthicalOil.org and British Columbia blogger Vivian Krause have detailed contributions from the Rockefeller Brothers Trust and the Oak Foundation of San Francisco to groups opposed to the oil-sands pipeline through British Columbia. Often, donations from U.S. groups are channelled through Tides Canada, an approach that allows Americans to make donations to Canadian charities but have a local organization determine the most effective use of the money.
But a Tides Canada official says support for energy-related issues like the Gateway pipeline amounts to less than 5 per cent of its funds devoted to overall charitable and environmental work in Canada. Often, the group works with governments on conservation, clean water and sustainable agriculture, and was involved in a sustainable aquaculture project announced by federal Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield in Campbell River, B.C., on Monday.
"I think this whole funding controversy is a diversion. it's like creating a fireworks show to distract people and stop them from focusing on things that Canadians are really concerned about," Tides Canada associate Merran Smith said.
Will Horter, a lawyer, runs the small environmental group Dogwood Initiative in Victoria, which receives some money through Tides.
Dogwood's fiscal 2012 budget is $758,000, of which about $160,000 – roughly 20 per cent – comes from the United States. The rest is mostly individual donors in British Columbia. About $130,000 from British Columbians was raised during a push in late 2011 with Gateway looming.
Gateway backer Enbridge Inc., meanwhile, raised $100-million in a special fund from large corporations, including foreign multinationals such as China's Sinopec, to promote the pipeline.
"We'll take money from anybody who supports our efforts to help British Columbians protect British Columbia," said Mr. Horter. "We won't take money from people who tells us what to do."
For its part, the Natural Resources Defense Council says it has been working for years with Canadian groups. In November, the NRDC released a report detailing risks from pipeline and tanker traffic and warning of "potential devastation" to wildlife habitats and aboriginal and other communities that rely on the land and water for their livelihood.
"We're working with partners all along the coast to make sure that anything NRDC does follows the lead of our partners on the ground," said Susan Casey-Lefkowtiz, the group's director of international programs.
She said the pipeline and resulting oil-sands development transcend national interest because of the impact on greenhouse-gas emissions and critical ecosystems like British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest.