KITIMAAT VILLAGE, British Columbia (AP) - The chief of an aboriginal community that stands to be most affected by a proposed pipeline to Canada's Pacific coast called the Canadian government's environmental review of the project a song-and-dance on Tuesday.
Haisla First Nation Chief Ellis Ross questioned whether the Conservative government already has plans to approve the pipeline just as the review gets under way.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has ratcheted up support for Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, which would allow Canadian oil to be shipped to Asia. Harper's new staunch public support for the pipeline comes after the United States delayed a decision to approve TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline that would take oil from Canada to the U.S Gulf Coast.
Harper has told President Obama that Canada plans to step up its efforts to sell oil to China.
Public environmental hearings into the Northern Gateway pipeline began Tuesday in Kitimaat Village, an aboriginal community on British Columbia's Pacific coast that would overlook Enbridge's proposed tanker facility.
The proposed pipeline would take oil from the Alberta oil sands to the nearby city of Kitimat, British Columbia, where tankers would transport the oil to China. Harper views the pipeline as critical to Canada as the country seeks to diversify its energy customer base beyond its only customer, the United States.
But there is fierce environmental and aboriginal opposition.
Opponents fear pipeline leaks and a potential Exxon Valdez-like disaster on the pristine Pacific coast. About 220 oil tankers a year would visit Kitimat's port.
Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver released a public letter on the eve of the environmental review attacking opponents of the pipeline, saying "environmental and other radical groups" are trying to block it no matter the benefit to Canada.
Oliver told The Associated Press that U.S. environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and The Rockefeller Foundation are funding these groups, which he says are threatening to hijack the regulatory system by delaying it.
Oliver said these green groups have been encouraged by delays in the Keystone XL pipeline in the United States and now want to derail the Northern Gateway pipeline in Canada. Harper also warned last week of foreign money being used to overload the review process, which is allowing more than 4,000 people to address the panel reviewing Northern Gateway pipeline
The Haisla chief, Ross, said the government is discrediting the review process and he called it insulting.
"It makes the Haisla wonder is there a predetermined decision? Are we just going to go through this song and dance for nothing," Ross told The AP on the sidelines of the hearings.
Opposition New Democrat lawmaker Nathan Cullen said the Conservative government has hamstrung the joint advisory panel and disparaged those who have legitimate concerns about the pipeline
"Ellis is a very moderate, reasonable guy. He's a pro-business chief. And now he's just been dumped into a camp as a radical because he's showing up and raising some concerns about tankers in his territory," Cullen said.
Oliver said his letter was not directed at aboriginal communities and said he respects their right to voice their concerns.
Oliver repeatedly declined to comment when asked in a telephone interview if the Harper government or the review panel has the final call on approval of the Northern Gateway pipeline.
"I don't want to get into that," Oliver said.
The pipeline is critical to Canada, which needs infrastructure in place to get the world's third largest oil reserves to market. China has been urging Canada to build the pacific pipeline for years and is increasingly making investments in the Alberta oil sands.
The hearings into the proposal, which Harper views as a nation-building project, are expected to last for 18 months. Harper has called Canada an emerging energy powerhouse. Only Saudi Arabia and Venezuela have more oil reserves and oil sands. Production in Canada is expected to triple over the next decade.
U.S. opponents of the pipeline say it would transport "dirty oil" that requires huge amounts of energy to extract.
Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, international program director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, noted that Oliver used the term "radical" for people who object to the pipeline.
"Rather than preparing to listen respectfully to community members in British Columbia, the Canadian federal government is acting as a spokesperson for Big Oil accusing opponents of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline of being "radicals" and "foreigners," she said in a statement.