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An Oil Industry Witch Hunt in Canada Threatens Us All

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Big Oil and the Canadian government are showing their true colors these days, and what an ugly spectacle it is. Not content to squeeze tar sands oil profits from Canada's boreal forest, the industry and the Harper regime are working overtime to squelch free speech in this once-vibrant democracy.

Their main target is nonprofit groups that oppose the Keystone XL and other tar sands pipeline projects. To silence these voices, the government has begun questioning whether the groups are following charitable tax codes and started proposing laws to limit their advocacy work. They've even equated environmental groups with terrorists and money launders.

This effort to stack the deck in favor of big oil companies doesn't just limit the rights of nonprofits. It endangers the rights of all people -- on both sides of the borders -- to breathe clean air, drink safe water, have a healthy climate and preserve forests and farmlands for our children.

The attacks began after President Obama rejected the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline to the Gulf of Mexico. Now another pipeline designed to take tar sands oil westward to China is also stirring large public concern. Farmers, ranchers, business owners, religious leaders, members of First Nations, scientists, and many others have concluded that these pipelines will endanger their communities. They also know that strip mining tar sands is devouring Canada's boreal forest and that producing tar sands generates more than three times the greenhouse gas emissions as conventional oil.

People across Canada have made their opposition to tar sands known. The Canadian federal government responded by branding clean energy advocates as "radicals" and threatening to add environmental groups to the list of extremist organizations under anti-terrorism legislation. The attacks expanded when those who questioned tar sands were accused of treason and one Minister even accused environmental charities of "money laundering" for American donors.

But all of this was just the opening gambit. In April, the Canadian federal government's budget bill rolled back many of Canada's major environmental laws on clean water, wildlife, and climate change. Perhaps most significant, it drastically limited the public's right to participate and comment on environmental reviews. Instead it gave the Prime Minister ultimate authority over pipeline proposals such as the controversial tar sands projects.

The budget also cut funding for environmental protection while leaving the $1.3 billion in federal subsidies for the oil industry largely intact. And in a time of supposed belt tightening, it included an extra $8 million to audit environmental groups, specifically going after those opposed to new tar sands pipelines.

This attack on democracy and clean air and water starts in Canada, but Big Oil is pushing tar sands to markets in the United States and has already been attacking U.S. efforts to put clean fuels standards in place. What is next in the United States, if the oil industry succeeds in silencing Canadian voices asking for basic public health and safety protections? Already some lawmakers are angling for a fast-track approval of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline in Congress. They are so eager to stifle public input that they have tried to include a green light for the pipeline in a completely unrelated transportation bill.

People in both countries are calling foul. On June 4, groups across the United States and Canada will black out their websites to protest this attempt to silence debate about our energy future and the need to fight climate change. Tar sands oil is sold by multinational companies to international markets. We must not let this industry believe it is above the law of any land. A united Canadian and American front will remind these companies that citizens will hold them accountable.

Freedom of speech is hardly a new value in our countries. As General Washington said in 1783 to his officers, "If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter." This level of attack calls for a united front. Canadians are fighting back and the environmental community in the United States is standing by them. Nothing less than our democracy, health and prosperity are at stake.

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