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Federal documents spark outcry by oil sands critics Add to ...

Critics are attacking Ottawa’s energy strategy after internal documents shed new light on the extent of federal efforts to advocate for the oil sands industry.

The documents, obtained through an access to information request and released by Greenpeace Canada, are a draft diplomatic strategy outlining ways to shape European perceptions of Canada’s oil sands. They show that the government’s messages are intended to shift attitudes in media and among top decision makers regarding the oil sands industry, which faces a possible effective import ban in Europe as the continent pursues a low-carbon fuel strategy.

In the document, environmental organizations and aboriginal groups are shown as “adversaries.” Industry associations, energy companies and the National Energy Board – which is supposed to serve as an independent body evaluating new projects – are listed as “allies.”

Critics say the documents raise questions about the government’s ability to fairly regulate new energy projects, and its increasing embrace of the country’s energy industry. Ministers have publicly tussled with environmental groups and made clear their friendly attitude toward Corporate Canada.

Government officials quickly moved to play down the significance of the documents. A spokesman for International Trade Minister Ed Fast said “we do not agree with the characterizations” of the documents, and Environment Minister Peter Kent called them “a gross mischaracterization of reality.”

On Thursday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper reiterated his support for oil expansion at the Davos World Economic Forum, calling it a “national priority to ensure we have the capacity to export our energy products beyond the United States and specifically to Asia.”

Also Thursday, Mr. Kent, in an address to a Calgary Chamber of Commerce audience packed with some of the top oil patch executives, described the new relationship between industry and his ministry, which plays an important role in regulating new projects.

“Environment Canada is a strategic partner to everyone in this room – everyone who does business in Calgary, everyone who does business in Alberta, everyone who does business in Canada,” he said.

“I’m not here to kill your buzz,” he said, adding that “we’ve reviewed and renewed our approach as a government department” to focus on efficiency and expediency – both inside the department, and in its focus on allowing industry to create jobs and investment.

Although he said “we are still environmental regulators,” he highlighted Environment Canada’s efforts at streamlining regulations as “the equivalent of installing bright lights around a rocky path to make progress safer and swifter.”

Those statements raised eyebrows among those who say the duty of Canadian regulators is not to advocate on behalf of one party.

Environment Canada’s duties do include partnering with industry, in the sense that it must call on companies to achieve better performance. But “the focus of regulation has to be on public interest, not on the interest of one particular stakeholder group – including industry,” said Jack Mintz, the director of the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy who also sits on the board of Imperial Oil Ltd.

Environmental advocates say Ottawa has begun to shift the definition of what is good for the country.

“The Harper government is now making explicit that they define protecting the public interest as protecting the interests of the oil industry,” said Devon Page, executive director of Ecojustice, a legal defence group that works with environmental organizations. “This is consistent with a shift that we’ve seen at Environment Canada ever since Harper came into power, and it’s the shift from being a steward of the natural environment to being a partner with industry.”

Such a policy – and the provocative language the government has used to further it, including labelling some environmental groups “radicals” – could have longer-term consequences, said Warren Mabee, director of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy at Queen’s University.

He pointed to the development of the national energy program, and the Trudeau government’s provocative language toward Alberta as it worked to set that into place. That, he argued, helped set in motion the western Reform movement. Ottawa’s current battle against environmental groups could also create long-term unintended consequences, he warned.

And, Mr. Mabee added, this country’s battles over cutting old-growth forest – which led to international consumer rejection of Canadian products – should serve as a cautionary tale.

“By favouring one outcome over another, government runs the risk of creating the impression of manipulating the process. And that will just backfire, I think, in terms of market acceptance of the product.”

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