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OTTAWA (Reuters) - On the eve of public hearings into a proposed oil pipeline from Alberta's tar sands to the Pacific Coast, the Canadian government lashed out on Monday at what it said were foreign-funded radical groups opposing the project.
The comments by Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver were another sign of the pressures mounting against Enbridge Inc's proposed C$5.5 billion ($5.4 billion) Northern Gateway pipeline.
Canada's right-leaning Conservative government, which says the pipeline would help diversify energy exports away from the United States and more towards Asia, says activists are clogging up the regulatory process.
The hearings have been extended by about a year to the end of 2013, partly to accommodate the more than 4,000 people who want to make their point of view known. Environmentalists complain crude from the oil sands is particularly dirty while aboriginal groups say they fear the consequences of a spill.
The pipeline would carry 525,000 barrels of Alberta crude a day across the Rocky Mountains to the port of Kitimat, British Columbia, where it would be loaded onto supertankers and shipped to Pacific Rim markets.
"Unfortunately, there are environmental and other radical groups that would seek to block this opportunity to diversify our trade," Oliver said in a statement.
"These groups threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda ... They use funding from foreign special interest groups to undermine Canada's national economic interest."
Ottawa and the oil industry are particularly interested in Northern Gateway after Washington delayed a decision on approving TransCanada Corp's Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport oil sands crude from Alberta to Texas.
Oliver said he saw no contradiction with criticizing foreign funding for groups opposed to the pipeline, even though major foreign oil companies had invested billions in developing the tar sands, one of the world's largest sources of crude.
"The fundamental difference is that the foreign companies are helping finance the project ... we need foreign capital," he told Reuters in a phone interview.
Susan Casey-Lefkowitz of the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council said Ottawa was acting on behalf of oil firms.
"Multinational oil companies are making tar sands decisions about what brings them the most profit and the Canadian federal government seems to want the oil industry to continue making those decisions," she wrote in a blog on Monday.
Oliver, who has long promised to streamline what he says is an excessively complex system for approving major projects, told Reuters that regulators did not need to hear from a mass of people who all had the same point of view.
Fixed timelines could be introduced without undermining the regulatory process, he said, noting that previous projects had taken as long as nine years to gain approval.
The official opposition New Democrats accused the government of trying to shut down debate on the pipeline.
"I don't think those Canadians are radicals. I think they are really concerned citizens," natural resources spokesman Claude Gravelle told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Rob Wilson