Joe Oliver has assumed the mantle as the Defender of the Oil Sands, a role he is clearly relishing.
The fourth natural resources minister to serve under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Mr. Oliver has more than any of his predecessors taken up the cudgels for Alberta oil producers who face a concerted, international campaign to shut down their aggressive expansion plans.
After just a few months in office, the 72-year-old rookie minister was thrust into a raging debate over the future of the oil sands, a major source of growth for employment, exports and greenhouse-gas emissions. He chose to stake his ground with an open letter – a full-throated denunciation of “environmental and other radical groups” that “use funding from foreign special interest groups to undermine Canada’s national economic interests.”
In launching its all-out attack, the government had a twofold goal: to undermine oil sands critics who succeeded in delaying the Keystone XL project in the United States, and prepare the ground for controversial reforms to the regulatory system that will speed up environmental reviews of major resource projects.
In an interview in his Parliament Hill office, the cabinet minister from Toronto made it clear he feels no discomfort at leading the government’s charge against opponents of the oil sands.
“At the end of the day, it was important to get the message out,” he said. “We’re sitting in on immense natural resources that can provide prosperity and security for Canadians for generations to come. But to achieve that objective, we have ship our resources from where they are to where they’re wanted.”
It was a bold move at a crucial time – just as the National Energy Board was commencing public hearings on the hugely controversial Northern Gateway pipeline project – projecting an image of a confident minister unafraid to take on detractors.
But there was a longer game in plan as well: The minister was clearly aiming to undermine critics who are gearing up to oppose the Harper government’s plan to overhaul environmental assessment laws to speed up approval of major resource projects.
At a mining conference in Toronto this week, Mr. Oliver embraced Canada’s role as “hewers of wood and drawers of water,” rather than seeing it as a resource curse.
“Canadians are taking a new pride in our country's status as an energy superpower and a mining giant,” he said. “They understand what our natural resources have meant to this country in the past, and what they mean to our future.”
During his nine months on the job, the former Bay Street banker has at times appeared unsteady, stumbling in the House of Commons and courting controversy with evasive answers to opposition questions. And while his open letter was cheered by supporters, its uncompromising tone exposed a political blind spot, alienating those with reservations about the pipeline project, failing to differentiate between “radicals” and local residents, including first nations, who oppose it in their backyard.
His denunciation of “foreign funded” groups has created an atmosphere of a witch hunt as Conservative MPs and senators take up the cause and threaten to expose charitable groups who oppose oil sands development and take funding from international sources, as most mainline charities do.
All of which raises the question: Is the rookie minister, who has held elected office for all of nine months and who is a self-confessed “numbers guy,” up to one of the most challenging communications jobs in the Harper government?
Despite a long Bay Street career, Mr. Oliver had virtually no public profile when Conservative elections strategists recruited him for the 2007 campaign. His career was spent mostly as a senior financial-sector bureaucrat rather than high-flying deal maker or company builder.
Still, Tory organizers considered Mr. Oliver to be stellar candidate as a bilingual Montreal native and Harvard MBA who was an active member of Toronto’s Jewish community, which had been assiduously courted by the Conservatives. Although he had no political experience, he served in quasi-public roles as executive director of the Ontario Securities Commission, then as chief executive of the Investment Dealers’ Association, a lobby group and self-regulating body for the securities industry.
Approaching retirement age, Mr. Oliver had little appetite for golf or the beach.
“I had a keen interest in public policy and I care about the country – having travelled across Canada for decades – and I wanted to make a difference,” he said. “I have ideas and I’m very comfortable with the Conservative philosophy and approach to government and where the PM is going.”
After a tough nomination fight, he lost the 2007 general election to Liberal stalwart Joe Volpe, but he had reduced Mr. Volpe’s margin of victory from more than 20 points to 4.5. In May, he easily beat Mr. Volpe, part of a Tory breakthrough in the 416 area code.
(His riding is among those where Liberals complain of dirty tricks and misleading phone calls that confused their supporters about voting rules; Mr. Oliver denies any knowledge of shenanigans.)
His appointment as Natural Resources Minister drew some grumbling from Calgary, where oil patch executives were not keen to have a rookie Torontonian overseeing their interests in Ottawa. But they liked his investment-banker background, which was also seen as an asset in Mr. Oliver’s most immediate challenge: selling off the federally owned Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.’s Candu reactor business to SNC-Lavalin Group Inc.
The sale of the money-losing reactor business was a political cakewalk compared to the minefield that awaited him on the oil sands file, and particularly the two pipeline projects running through the United States and British Columbia.
On Nov. 9, U.S. President Barack Obama stunned the Harper government by delaying a decision on the TransCanada Corp. Keystone XL pipeline, a piece of oil sands infrastructure that Canada saw as critical to oil sands expansion plans.
The Keystone decision drove home two key lessons for Mr. Harper and Mr. Oliver: that Canada must export energy to Asia and reduce its dependence on a fickle American market, and that government needed to confront environmental groups who were increasingly sophisticated in their capacity to block needed energy infrastructure.
Mr. Oliver was eager to take up both challenges.
“When the Prime Minister of Canada and the President of the United States are talking about a file that I’ve been given responsibility for, then I know I’m dealing with something that is front and centre,” he said in the interview.
Mr. Oliver says the idea for the open letter was hatched in his office and it was written by him. Skeptics, though, see the hand of the Prime Minister’s Office, and especially Conservative staffers like Alykhan Velshi, who had founded the pro-industry group, EthicalOil.org, during a brief hiatus from Ottawa.
NDP MP Megan Leslie says Mr. Oliver is inclined to throw out controversial and highly partisan statements, and then soften the impact with qualifiers after he has made a splash. Often, that is seen as backtracking.
At the same time, the minister courts controversy. In the House of Commons recently, Ms. Leslie asked Mr. Oliver several times whether he believed the scientific consensus of human-caused climate change. On the fourth try, he finally acknowledged the “overwhelming” consensus among scientists that climate change is real and is being caused by human activity.
Nor has he given much attention to non-fossil forms of energy like wind or solar, or to the conservation programs that would reduce Canada’s heavy use of fossil fuels.
While Mr. Oliver’s political skills may be somewhat lacking, no one questions his intelligence or work ethic. He maintains a travel schedule that would tire a man half his age. Following the release of the open letter, he embarked on a cross-country speaking tour that took him to five cities in a week, with multiple events in each.
Indeed, it was his work ethic that friends say was responsible for his success in Eglinton-Lawrence. By his own count, Mr. Oliver knocked on 40,000 doors in the riding between 2007 and last May’s election.
Energy and resource industry officials described the minister as intelligent and driven by numbers and business consideration, with little interest in political grandstanding. But they also see him as someone who takes a very traditional and market-oriented view of government’s role in the economy.
Avrim Lazar, chief executive of the Forest Products Association of Canada, gives Mr. Oliver high marks for his understanding of the industry, particularly the business case for some of the bio-energy projects that Ottawa supports.
At the same time, Mr. Lazar added, he would rather Mr. Oliver was “less obsessed with the oil sands.”
But that’s the focus of his job. And Mr. Oliver will need all his persuasive skills to maintain public confidence as the government speeds up regulatory approvals of oil sands projects.
“I took this on because I’d like to get things accomplished at this stage of my life,” he said. “That’s what’s really important. And I thought it would be interesting and fun, and it is.”