Radicals working against oilsands, Ottawa says

"Radical" environmental groups are trying to block trade, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver says, and the government may try to bring them to Parliament to explain where they get their funding.

Environment groups 'threaten to hijack' system, natural resources minister says

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver warns that 'radical' groups are trying to derail the Canadian economy by delaying oilsands development proposals. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Environmental and other "radical groups" are trying to block trade and undermine Canada's economy, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said Monday.

Oliver's comments came one day before federal regulatory hearings begin on whether to approve Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline, which would deliver crude from Alberta's oilsands to Kitimat, B.C., for shipment to Asia.

More than 4,300 people have signed up to address the proposed pipeline over the next 18 months.

"Unfortunately, there are environmental and other radical groups that would seek to block this opportunity to diversify our trade," Oliver said in an open letter. 

"Their goal is to stop any major project no matter what the cost to Canadian families in lost jobs and economic growth. No forestry. No mining. No oil. No gas. No more hydro-electric dams."

Oliver says the groups "threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda," stack the hearings with people to delay or kill "good projects," attract "jet-setting" celebrities and use funding from "foreign special interest groups."

Finance committee to look at funding

Sources say the government isn't just talking, CBC's Margo McDiarmid reports, but will be targeting environmental groups when the House finance committee reviews charitable funding next month.

The committee could recommend changing the rules to stop them from getting U.S. money. Sierra Club's John Bennett says he's worried.

"This is just a way to undermine our credibility and sweep out all environmental protections in Canada," he said.

The committee's chair wouldn't confirm they're targeting environmental groups, but says they're free to make their case. "I'm not going to prejudge what members will ask, what issues are going to be raised during the hearings," said Conservative MP James Rajotte. "So let's have the hearings and see what they result in."

Speaking to Evan Solomon, host of CBC-TV's Power & Politics, Oliver said he didn't know about the finance committee's study.

'Driven by an ideological imperative'

In an interview on CBC News Network, Oliver said radicals are "a group of people who don’t take into account the facts but are driven by an ideological imperative."

Environmentalist David Suzuki said he was "puzzled" by Oliver's language.

"Environmentalists want to 'live within our means,' 'save some for tomorrow,' think about the 'legacy we leave for our children.' That strikes me as a pretty conservative approach," Suzuki said in a statement sent to CBC's Evan Solomon.

"We have become so powerful and demanding that we are negatively impacting air, water, soil and biodiversity, the very source of our lives and livelihood," the scientist and broadcaster said. "That's what environmentalists are concerned about and the minister's diatribe prevents us from having this important discussion of values and balance."

While Oliver took aim at foreign funding for environment groups, foreign investment is a major part of the oilsands. American, British, Chinese, French and Norwegian companies have all invested in the oilsands.

The difference, Oliver said, is that Canada needs the foreign capital.

"They’re helping us build infrastructure to help us diversify our market. Other groups are trying to impede … the economic progress; they’re trying to block development; they’re trying to block projects which will create hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in government revenue and trillions of dollars in economic development. That’s the fundamental difference."

Review process should be shortened, minister says

Oliver says he thinks the environmental review process can be shorter and still protect Canada.

"Of course it's a matter of judgment. We want to have enough time, but we don't want to permit people to hijack the process, and that's what's been happening," he said.

Last month, Oliver criticized the environmental review process as he approved French oil giant Total's Joslyn North oilsands mine project 65 kilometres northwest of Fort McMurray, Alta. He said he wants to see the process streamlined and shortened to two years.

A spokesman for the Pembina Institute, an environment group, says it seems the government is looking at fundamentally changing Canada’s approach to regulating and reviewing development proposals, as opposed to looking at economic and environmental issues associated with a pipeline and making a decision.

"Frankly, I would say I’m surprised at the letter and the force of it with an absence of, I think, accurate information as a foundation for it," Dan Woynillowicz said.

Pembina gets about 10 per cent of its funding from outside Canada, he said. The other 90 per cent comes from people, foundations and fee-for-service work inside Canada.

Last Friday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper told an Edmonton crowd that he's heard a "growing" concern about the use of foreign money to overload the public consultation phase of regulatory hearings.

"We have to have processes in Canada that come to a decision in a reasonable amount of time and processes that cannot be hijacked," Harper said.

"This is something that is not good for the Canadian economy and the government of Canada will be taking a close look at how we can ensure that our regulatory processes are effective and deliver decisions in a reasonable amount of time." 

'Hijacked by the foreign oil lobby'

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May says running a pipeline through British Columbia's northern wilderness is a bad idea that can't be fast-tracked.

"Unfortunately, I think your role as minister of natural resources has been hijacked by the [Prime Minister's Office] spin machine. The PMO is, in turn, hijacked by the foreign oil lobby," she wrote in an open letter in response to Oliver.

May says there are other ways to diversify Canada's energy markets, other routes and other forms of energy.

"By characterizing this issue as environmental radicals versus Canada’s future prosperity you have done a grave disservice to the development of sensible public policy," she says.

With files from The Canadian Press