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The Budget's Love Affair With Big Oil

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Everyone knows that there are always winners and losers come federal budget time. Yesterday's budget, however, built on the emerging dynamic in federal politics where Big Oil wins big time at the expense of all Canadians -- our health, our right to open and democratic debate, and our pocketbooks.

One columnist called the oil-soaked federal budget a "declaration of war on environmentalists" and questions like "so how does it feel to be targeted?" have become commonplace for those of us working on tar sands issues. The reality is that it's Canadians' right to a healthy environment, clean air and water, and a say in big industrial projects that is under attack.

It was no surprise that the budget included measures to weaken the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA), imposing artificial deadlines for reviewing the impacts of projects and shunting responsibility to the provinces. What was surprising was the admission from Minister Flaherty that those changes will apply to Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway pipeline and tanker project despite previous assurances from the government to the contrary.

It's unclear what exactly this means for the ongoing environmental review of the project, which is scheduled to reach a decision by the end of 2013. The worst case scenario would be that the process is shut down and a decision is made as early as May 2012 (24 months after the review technically started). But, the reality is the hearings didn't even start until this time last year, largely because it took an entire year for the panel to post a hearing order after determining that Enbridge had submitted all the information needed.

This would mean failing to do the work needed to understand the risks of the pipeline and tanker project. It would mean silencing the voices of the more than 4,000 Canadians who want to share their concerns about the project. It would mean shirking the government's constitutional responsibility to consult with First Nations.

Environmental assessments exist to prevent problems before they happen, and to protect the health of Canadians (and all other species who live here) from the harm of water and air pollution. Rolling back environmental protections puts us all at risk and gives Big Oil a free pass to do what it wants. It also means Canadians are vulnerable to the financial burden of cleaning up industry's mess.

Yesterday's budget didn't stop at weakening CEAA. The assault on charitable organizations seen in the senate and by some Members of Parliament continued. The attempts to intimidate organizations working to raise awareness of the environmental damage caused by tar sands development is yet another ploy to pave the way for reckless tar sands expansion by limiting public debate on these issues.

What wasn't in the budget? There was virtually no support for renewable energy, energy efficiency, or efforts to tackle climate change. And that $1.38 billion taxpayers hand to Big Oil every year in subsidies? That was barely touched.