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Canadian Government Targeting Opponents of New Oil Sands Pipeline

Environmental groups in Canada say they are now operating within a culture of fear aimed at silencing legitimate democratic dissent.

Mar 1, 2012
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

As U.S. environmental groups renew their battle against the resurrected Keystone XL oil pipeline, their counterparts in Canada are facing a deeper problem—a government campaign to limit their influence over Canada's Northern Gateway pipeline.

The proposed Northern Gateway would funnel tar sands crude oil from Alberta to the Pacific Coast, where Canada could ship the oil via tankers to China and other countries. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper expressed his support for the $6.6 billion project in January, before the first public hearing was held, and he reiterated his position during a recent visit to China.

Alberta's tar sands contain the world's third largest reserve of oil, but the province is landlocked. The booming oil industry there wants to build new pipelines to carry its crude to ports along the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific coast to gain access to global markets.

The Northern Gateway would consist of two 731-mile pipelines. One would funnel up to 525,000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta to the city of Kitimat on the British Columbia coast. The other would flow from Kitimat to Alberta, carrying a liquid used to dilute the heavy crude so it can flow in pipelines.

The pipelines are controversial because they would cross vast forests and the two largest salmon-producing streams in Canada. British Columbia is also home to 200 First Nations communities, the aboriginal peoples indigenous to Canada, most of whom oppose the project.

Art Sterritt, executive director of Coastal First Nations, an alliance of 10 communities along the Pacific Coast, said his group will challenge the proposed pipeline in court if necessary.

"We have a good culture in British Columbia," he said. "There's a renewable forest industry and a renewable fishing industry ... What we're now seeing is a non-renewable industry from another province trying to overwhelm us."

As environmental groups have stepped up their campaigns against the project, key figures in the Harper administration have publicly denounced them as extremists, and a federal finance committee has announced plans to audit all of Canada's charities. In an internal government memo obtained by Greenpeace Canada, industry associations were listed as "allies" and environmental NGOs and aboriginal groups as "adversaries."

Northern Gateway's supporters have focused much of their attention on where charities get their money. Canadian charities are exempt from most taxes and can issue tax deduction receipts to their donors, similar to 501(c)(3) organizations in the United States.

In early January, Harper told reporters that "foreign money" is responsible for the growing opposition to the Northern Gateway project. Days later, Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver said in an open letter that, "These groups threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda ...They use funding from foreign special interest groups to undermine Canada's national economic interest."

According to the St. Paul Journal, Brian Jean, a member of Parliament from Harper's Conservative party, is drafting a bill aimed primarily at the charities that receive funding from U.S.-based foundations.

Neither Jean nor his assistant would answer questions for this article. When InsideClimate News contacted Harper's office for comment, a spokesman directed our inquiry to the Minister of Natural Resources. Oliver's office did not respond to requests for information.

Ed Whittingham, executive director of the Pembina Institute, said any attempt to limit foreign funding could affect Canada's entire charitable sector. Pembina is a nonprofit think tank that promotes sustainable energy.

"It's hard to know how the federal conservative government could restrict foreign funding for environmental NGOs without restricting funding for right-wing think tanks, social agencies and [other] charities," Whittingham told InsideClimate News. "The risk is they'd use a blunt instrument that would be too blunt."

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