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Who would expect Stephen Harper's cry of injustice in the oil sands to be about the colour of foreign money?

Mr. Harper made the complaint, then Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver followed in an open letter: Foreign money is interfering with Canadian decisions about the Northern Gateway Pipeline, which would transport Alberta oil to a B.C. port so it could be shipped overseas. It came after some foreigner-fearmongering from oil-sands advocacy group, which, working as Ottawa's cat's paw, asked Mr. Oliver to "ban foreigners" from public hearings on the pipeline.

Canada is economically dependent on trade, seeking to attract investors and aspiring to influence the world. The pipeline is partly financed by foreign investors to sell oil to Asia, and it's opposed (among others) by those who fear it will speed global warming. This is international business and geopolitics, and the front lines of global debate, the crossing of Canada and the world. Canada's whining about some foreign funding of activists.

There really is, as Mr. Harper says, a big issue of national strategy around selling energy to Asia, rather than just the U.S., which requires pipelines to the West Coast. There really are environmental groups that oppose developing the oil sands at all. But to pretend what matters is preventing foreign money from influencing Canadian resource decisions is parochial and disingenuous.

Heaven forfend that foreign interests try to influence Canadian pipeline policy by funding organizations here. Like the Canadian Energy Pipelines Association. Three out of 10 of their member companies are subsidiaries of American ones : Spectra Energy, Kinder Morgan Canada, and Plains Midstream Canada, controlled by Plains All American.

Over four days in November, CEPA lobbyists met with 30 MPs (28 Tories including two ministers), six deputy ministers, and a dozen other senior officials.

Conoco Phillips, developing an Alaskan gas pipeline that would cut through Canada, also lobbies. On other issues, like Chinese takeovers of Canadian oil firms, companies like China National Offshore Oil Corporation get meetings, as they did in November, with senior Canadian officials and Mr. Oliver. Foreign governments care, too.

Mr. Harper announced Wednesday that he'll make his second trip to China in February. His new priority, selling oil to Asia, will surely be a hot topic, as well as adding to $10-billion in Chinese oil investment.

It isn't wrong for foreign oil companies to discuss projects with Canadian officials, or for foreign backers of Northern Gateway, like France's Total and China's Sinopec, to support it at hearings. Or for environmental groups to take American sums to oppose it. The panel's reviewing evidence, not taking a poll.

Mr. Oliver's letter complained that environmentalists with foreign money will slow the review, and the process should be changed. For a government in power six years to say that on the eve of hearings they deem crucial is like admitting to sleeping on the job.

They woke up after losing another pipeline battle last fall to environmentalists, when U.S. President Barack Obama delayed a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline to the Gulf Coast. They went looking for an opponent here, because it's better to be on offence. So Mr. Oliver caricatured the funders as "billionaire socialists from the United States" – who would sympathize with those?

It's a nervy response that looks like browbeating a panel, shutting down critics, and whiny, selective xenophobia. This is a serious issue, and Ottawa's busy cutting targets out of cardboard.