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'Radical groups' spur Tories to speed pipeline review process

Protesters load a giant piece of pipeline with their placards following a protest outside the Vancouver Art Gallery in downtown Vancouver on Aug. 31, 2010. The pipeline was brought there by opponents of the Northern Gateway Pipeline Project, which would see a gas pipeline built in northern B.C. It's being called a nation-builder, nation-divider and non-starter, depending on who's talking.

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

The Conservative government will bring forward new rules to greatly shorten environmental reviews of pipelines and other major projects, arguing that "radical groups" are exploiting the reviews to block proposals vital to Canada's economic future.

On the eve of hearings into the proposed Northern Gateway oil pipeline from Alberta to the Pacific coast, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver released a strongly-worded open letter Monday condemning some opponents of the pipeline. A copy of the letter was provided in advance to The Globe and Mail.

The letter warns of "environmental and other radical groups" including "jet-setting celebrities" funded by foreign special interest groups who "threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological ends."

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They system "is broken," Mr. Oliver concludes in the letter. "It's time to take a look at it."

In an interview Sunday, the minister said his department is examining the existing rules around the environmental review process to prevent the same objections from being made repeatedly by different people or groups.

"What we are looking at is providing definitive timelines from start to finish on the regulatory process," said Mr. Oliver.

"The objective should be that these reviews would no longer go on for many, many years. They would have a definitive timeline that would provide certainty to the participants who are sponsoring the project."

Such changes could not be easily or quickly imposed. "There may be a need for legislation," Mr. Oliver acknowledged, though he couldn't say when such legislation would be introduced.

The minister would not comment on whether the legislation could affect the environmental review of the Gateway itself.

On Friday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper himself warned of "the use of foreign money to really overload the public consultation phase" of the pipeline review, promising his government "will be taking a close look" to ensure "our regulatory processes are effective and deliver decisions in a reasonable amount of time."

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Environmentalists as well as agricultural interests and both state and federal politicians succeeded in forcing the Obama administration to delay a decision on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to the southern United States.

Partly in response to that delay, the Harper government is determined to open the market for Alberta oil to China and other Asian markets. The Conservatives see the Northern Gateway pipeline as essential to that goal.

But it isn't outside interests who are raising the greatest objection to the project. Canadian environmental and aboriginal groups are also strongly opposed, claiming that spills from the pipeline and from ships carrying the oil from B.C. could wreak enormous environmental damage to fish and wildlife.

The Conservatives say they are not looking for laxer regulations, just quicker decisions. They tout the work of the Major Projects Management Office, a committee of deputy ministers they created that meets regularly to cut through the regulatory red tape on major projects.

The government claims that this has reduced the regulatory approvals process for many projects from four years to 22 months.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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