01/16/2012 10:03 EST | Updated 03/17/2012 05:12 EDT

Northern Gateway Pipeline: Harper Says Canada Won't Be America's 'Giant National Park'

OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper says he doesn't want the future of Northern Gateway pipeline to be decided by "certain" people in the United States who would like to see Canada be one giant national park.

Harper told CBC's Peter Mansbridge that it is in Canada's interest to sell its energy exports to Asia and the rising tension over Iran's nuclear ambitions should show the United States that it needs to cut its dependence on Middle East oil.

"When you look at the Iranians threatening to block the Strait of Hormuz, I think that just illustrates how critical it is that supply for the United States be North America," Harper told the CBC in a television interview.

Harper said he has raised the alarm bells about Iran's nuclear ambitions with Canada's allies while urging them to take firmer action beyond the sanctions now imposed on Tehran.

The proposed $5.5-billion Northern Gateway oil pipeline from Alberta to northwest B.C., will allow Alberta's oil to be loaded onto tankers and shipped down the West Coast to Asian and American markets.

China has invested billions of dollars into energy projects in Alberta's oilsands and the Tories have worked hard to repair relations and boost trade with the Asian economic power.

But the Northern Gateway project has met with strong opposition from environmental groups and First Nations communities in both Alberta and British Columbia.

More than 4,300 people and groups have signed up to speak over the next 18 months or more at the public hearings into the proposed pipeline. A number of U.S.-based environmental groups along with some Hollywood heavyweights, including Robert Redford and Kevin Bacon, have joined the fight.

Harper insisted he doesn't endorse specific projects and respects the regulatory processes.

"But just because certain people in the United States would like to see Canada be one giant national park for the northern half of North America, I don't think that's part of what our review process is all about."

He said the government is concerned the regulatory processes are subject to extraordinary delay, and are "increasingly vulnerable to foreign money coming in for the sole purpose of delaying the process."

Such delays are not fair to the companies involved, are not fair to the country, said Harper, adding that the government will make sure that going forward such processes, while thorough, are done on a timely basis.

Harper also pointed to the controversy south of the border that has surrounded another proposed Canadian oil project — TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline.

"I think what's happened around the Keystone is a wake-up call, the degree to which we are dependent or possibly held hostage to decisions in the United States, and especially decisions that may be made for very bad political reasons."

Harper emphasized Canada's need to engage Asia after U.S. President Barack Obama imposed a one-year delay on the $7-billion Keystone project.

The pipeline would have carried Alberta oilsands crude to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico, but Obama had to delay the project in November because of widespread opposition by environmental groups in a U.S. election year.

Harper said he respects the fact that the Americans have a right to make their own decisions. But with Iran threatening to block the Strait of Hormuz Harper said "it's pretty obvious" what the right decision is.

_ By Merita Ilo in Toronto.