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Why Tory decision to shrink environmental role is no surprise

The Haisla First Nation's Kitimaat Village is seen in an aerial view along the Douglas Channel near Kitimat, B.C., on Tuesday January 10, 2012. Public hearings began Tuesday for the proposed $5.5-billion project to pipe Alberta oil 1,200-kilometres across Alberta and British Columbia to the northwest coast community of Kitimat, where the oil will be shipped overseas by oil tankers. Rio Tinto Alcan's Kitimat Smelter is pictured at left with the town of Kitimat, top.

Daryl Dick/The Canadian Press

The Harper Conservatives were shifting the way the government approaches environmental issues even before Tuesday's announcement. Three recent developments illustrate that shift:

The end of the National Round Table

The National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy will write its last reports over the next year, on topics including business resilience to climate change. But as of March 31, 2013, the NRTEE and its $5-million in annual funding will disappear.

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The group has a mandate from Parliament to engage Canadians in sustainable development. Critics say it's being shutdown because the government doesn't like its advice. But the government says times have changed since the NRTEE was created in 1988 and similar information is available online from universities and other groups.

Changing the Fisheries Act

A former federal scientist obtained documents last month that showed the government has plans to change the Canada Fisheries Act. The government may remove the requirement to protect fish habitats and fish that are not of "economic, cultural or ecological value."

The changes would allow faster approval of huge projects including the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. A letter from more than 600 scientists from across the country urged the Prime Minister not to go ahead with the changes, saying it "would be a most unwise action, which would jeopardize many important fish stocks and the lakes, estuaries and rivers that support them."

Funding fight for environmental NGOs

The Conservatives have labelled environmental charities, including Tides Canada, as radicals that have hijacked the review process for the Northern Gateway. International funding that the groups receive has been scrutinized by the government, with some Conservatives questioning why U.S. money was used to oppose the oil sands.

National Resources Minister Joe Oliver said the groups used foreign funding to "undermine Canada's national economic interest." But the environmental groups say the portrayal of funding as mostly foreign is incorrect and an attempt to silence their views. A senate inquiry is examining the foreign funding of charities.

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