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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Hundreds of environmental and activist groups in Canada shut down their websites for a day on Monday to protest Canadian government policies that will make it easier to build pipelines to transport oil from Alberta's vast tar sands.
The groups - joined by U.S.-based groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council - say the Conservative government is also trying to silence opponents of the pipelines from the tar sands, the world's third-biggest oil reserve and the subject of much environmental concern.
The Conservatives, determined to make Canada what they call an energy superpower, want to speed up reviews of resource development projects, cut back laws that protect fish habitats, strip key veto powers from the federal energy regulator, and give the government the final say on approving major pipelines.
"Why is this all happening? Quite simply, because the oil industry wants it. (This) is Christmas come seven months early for the oil industry," said Rick Smith of Environmental Defence.
"The more a country becomes a petro-state, the less it values free speech," he told a news conference in Ottawa to launch the "Black Out Speak Out" day of action.
Green groups are particularly opposed to two planned pipelines: TransCanada Corp's Keystone XL, which would take tar sands oil to Texas; and Enbridge Inc's Northern Gateway, which would run from Alberta to the Pacific Coast. Critics say tar sands oil is particularly dirty since it requires more energy to extract than regular crude.
Ottawa says the current regulatory system is too complex and could threaten up to C$500 billion ($480 billion) of new investment in the oil and mining industries over the next decade.
Shortly after the green groups launched their campaign, 10 government ministers fanned across the country to stress the importance of natural resource development and deny charges Ottawa's moves would gut environmental protection.
"This is a false assertion ... that the choice is between environmental protection 100 percent or the economy and growth 100 percent. That's nonsense, of course," Finance Minister Jim Flaherty told reporters in Toronto.
"I think most Canadians realize we can have environmental protection - reasonable steps, reasonable processes on a timely basis - and at the same time have significant economic growth."
The government brands some green groups as foreign-funded radicals and it plans to give more power to the tax authorities to crack down on charities that fund political campaigns.
"(This) is reflective of a deeply troubling pattern of intimidating, punishing, insulting, side-lining and ultimately seeking to silence voices of criticism," said Alec Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International's Canadian branch.
Green groups complain about the close ties between the Conservatives and the oil and gas industry, which both have their roots in Alberta. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers dismissed the suggestion its members were dictating official policy.
"The blackout campaign is part of activist groups' continuing attack on the oil and gas industry, but ignores the fact that regulatory reform is necessary and applicable to all Canada's major projects (and) industries," said CAPP spokesman Travis Davies.
The organizers of Black Out Speak Out said 500 groups were involved, including major not-for-profit and social justice organizations, trade unions, scientists, artists, businesses, faith groups, First Nations, and all four federal opposition parties.
With additional reporting by Allison Martell in Toronto and Jeff Jones in Calgary; Editing by Peter Galloway