Environmental and other groups say they are staging a one-day website blackout… (Susan Walsh / Associated…)
WASHINGTON — Visit the Natural Resources Defense Council's website Monday and you can expect to find a black screen. More than 400 groups, including the National Wildlife Federation's Action Fund and 350.org, a leader in the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline, are doing the same thing.
Environmental and other groups say they are staging the one-day blackout to protest efforts by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his allies to crack down on opponents of the pipeline. Nearly all Canadian environmental organizations, all four opposition parties and others will shroud their websites in black, displaying the message, "While our websites may be dark, our voices together are louder than ever."
Construction of pipelines that would carry petroleum from Alberta's oil sands to the U.S. is a top priority for the Harper administration and his Conservative Party. The delay of the $7-billion Keystone XL project — a result of opposition by U.S. environmentalists and objections in Nebraska to part of the proposed route — has been an unexpectedly stubborn obstacle.
U.S. House Republicans tried to force the Obama administration to approve Keystone by setting a quick timetable. That backfired when the administration rejected it on grounds that the State Department didn't have time to properly evaluate it. The company altered the route and reapplied last month.
The Harper government and pro-pipeline lawmakers in Canada have written a new budget bill, set to pass this month, that they say would streamline environmental reviews, strengthen pipeline safety and ensure that nonprofits work only on charitable efforts, not politics. Opponents counter that the sweeping bill would gut the country's environmental laws and sharply curtail nonprofits' activism.
"Our government's … trying to push through pipelines at all costs. That new attitude is propelled by their surprise at Keystone's failure," said Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence, among the organizers of the "BlackoutSpeakout" action.
Adam Sweet, a spokesman for the Environment Ministry, said the government disagreed with environmentalists' characterization of the bill. Sweet referred to Harper's comments that the legislation is meant to prevent what the administration contends is foreign interference in Canadian politics through environmental groups.
"When it comes to the important environmental review processes we have in this country," Harper said recently, "I think it's ultimately important that Canadians control and Canadians get input into the process rather than foreign interests dominating this process."
Canadian environmentalists call such claims baseless and part of a campaign to discredit them.
In the U.S., some groups like the Sierra Club and Earthjustice plan to participate by displaying on their websites a message and links to the protesting groups.
Other groups in Canada that plan to darken their home pages include Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, Oxfam Canada and the Pembina Institute. About 13,000 people will darken Facebook pages or participate in social media, including the author Margaret Atwood, organizers said last week.
"When you look at tar sands, it's an international issue because of its impact in Canada, the U.S. and on the climate," said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's international program. "Also, with the oil industry pressuring the Canadian government to go after environmental groups and laws in Canada, they can do it here next."
The budget bill would exempt certain projects from environmental assessments, allow the Cabinet to override decisions by the country's independent energy regulator, and strip environmentalists and others of their nonprofit status if they engaged in certain forms of advocacy.
Smith said he expected the bill to pass largely as is. The next step would be to challenge the provisions in Canada's court, he said.