EDMONTON - Prime Minister Stephen Harper says he's listening to concerns that hearings for the Northern Gateway pipeline will be "hijacked" by foreign interests.
"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 Friday while in Edmonton to make an unrelated announcement.
"In particular, growing concern has been expressed to me about the use of foreign money to really overload the public consultation phase of regulatory hearings just for the purpose of slowing down the process.
"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."
Harper's comments echoed those of oilsands advocacy groups, which have attacked several Canadian environmental organizations for accepting money from U.S. sources.
They also come after a number of environmental groups, some with offices in both Canada and the U.S., acknowledged they have run so-called "Mob the Mike" campaigns. They said they knocked on doors in communities along the proposed route and spoke on university campuses to get people to register to speak at public hearings on Enbridge Inc.'s (TSX:ENB) proposal.
More than 4,000 groups and individuals have registered to file submissions during the Gateway hearings that are to start next week in Kitimat, B.C. That $5.5-billion pipeline would carry crude oil 1,200 kilometres from Alberta to the West Coast for export to Asian countries. It would deliver about 525,000 barrels a day.
Advocates say the line is crucial to open new markets for Canadian energy, particularly from Alberta's oilsands. Opponents fear potential spills and marine disasters along the British Columbia coastline, as well as expansion of markets for greenhouse-gas intensive oilsands crude.
Todd Paglia is with Forest Ethics, an environmental group with offices on both sides of the border that has encouraged people to speak out against the pipeline. He rejected the suggestion the hearings were being deliberately tied up.
"We're just encouraging people to be part of a conversation that's really important to them," he said.
"Democracies are not like dictatorships. They are sometimes messy because conversations and dialogue is important to arrive at the right policy."
Paglia said his group has spent less than $10,000 on its campaign to get people involved in the hearings. The money, he said, has come from both Canadian and U.S. sources.
"It's not like we have $100 million from China, the way Enbridge does," he said.
A Chinese company is one of the backers of the Calgary-based company's project.
"Mr. Harper seems to only have a problem with foreign money that opposes his agenda."
George Hoberg, a political scientist from the University of British Columbia's forestry department, said it's ridiculous to suggest the hearings are being controlled by foreigners.
"There are a lot of Canadians who are extremely concerned about the pipeline," said Hoberg, who has been following the Gateway issue for years. "The prime minister characterizes the things he doesn't like as 'politics' and the things that he does like as 'good process.'
"I think it's absurd to focus on foreign foundation funding of Canadian environmentalists without focusing on foreign ownership of Canadian energy companies."
Governments have every right to try to ensure their regulatory processes deliver timely decisions and aren't undermined by interest groups, said Andrew Leach, who teaches environmental economics at the University of Alberta.
But deciding whose voices are heard and whose aren't is a ticklish business.
"In theory that's easy to say; in practice it's very hard to implement," said Leach. "Once you start drawing lines that say, 'OK, so who gets to participate?' that becomes much more difficult to do."
Leach points out the hearing's rules were designed to allow wide participation. Changing them after the fact would threaten their legitimacy as much as being swamped by activists.
"If you start to say that only people with commercial interests can participate, or only people within a certain distance of the pipeline can participate, then you've delegitimized the process for everybody that doesn't fall into those categories.
"That's as dangerous as having a lot of speaking at the hearings — especially when you change the rules after the fact."
The panel is to make a recommendation to the federal cabinet on the pipeline by the end of next year.