Canada open for business but closed to criticism

While calling foul over environmental "ideology," Oliver ignores the ideological underpinnings of his own government

January 12, 2012

CALGARY, AB, Jan. 12, 2012/ Troy Media/ – Apparently Canada is open for business but closed to criticism, no matter how constructive. This is the clearest conclusion that can be drawn from Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver’s open letter to Canadians, in which he attacks advocates of responsible oil-sands development as ‘radicals’ and dismisses the concerns of thousands of Canadians who want to have a say in the decision of whether to build Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline.

The $6.6-billion project would run two parallel pipelines carrying diluted bitumen and condensate along a 1,177-kilometre route linking the oil sands in Alberta with the remote port of Kitimat on the northern B.C. coast. The pipelines would traverse hundreds of salmon-bearing rivers and streams, the mountainous and landslide-prone terrain, the Great Bear Rainforest, and the territory of more than 50 First Nations.

Federal government isn’t listening

The joint review panel public hearings that have just begun aim to determine whether the project is in the interest of Canadians.

But recent statements from the Harper government indicate it is not interested in listening to the concerns of more than 4,000 Canadians who have signed up to speak at the hearings. Forget the democratic process and ignore the obligations of due diligence and harm prevention inherent in Canada’s environmental review process – as Oliver states, ‘For our government, the choice is clear.’

In fact, the minister’s letter makes one wonder if he spends any time at all listening to those Canadians who care about environmental protection and responsible resource development. Dismissing opponents of this project as ‘ideological’ and opposed to all major projects, Oliver ironically ignores the ideological underpinnings of the Harper government’s consistent efforts to pit economic growth against environmental protection. 

The two objectives don’t have to be mutually exclusive. The Pembina Institute has long argued for responsible oil-sands development – and we’ve done our due diligence to map out 19 policy solutions that could move Canada closer to that goal. But rather than fulfill its duty to ensure environmentally responsible oil-sands development, the Harper government has preferred to engage in the ‘bait and switch’ PR manoeuvres of the ‘ethical oil’ crowd.

A pipeline rupture along the mountainous interior B.C. route and a supertanker spill in the waters off the Pacific Coast are two significant risks associated with this project. The government’s refusal to acknowledge and address those risks – let alone demonstrate how it would propose cleaning up the potential damage and compensating the British Columbians whose livelihoods would be affected – is irresponsible.

Canadians deserve a government that is willing to listen to their concerns about our current course of energy development and take those concerns seriously. Interfering in due process (particularly for a project of this magnitude, and one in which so many Canadians have a legitimate interest in the outcome) risks more than the integrity of our natural resources – it undermines the basic principles of a democratic society.

The government has also been outspoken in its criticism of ‘foreign intervention’ in the Gateway hearings – that is, input from environmental advocates outside Canada. But a quick bit of number-crunching by Environmental Defence shows that the government is overstating the case: Of the 216 interveners registered to participate in the hearings, not one represents an environmental group from outside of Canada, while 10 represent multinational corporations.

Forty First Nations from B.C. and Alberta make up the largest single block of registered interveners, and of the 4,522 people registered to make 10-minute oral presentations at the hearings, 79 per cent are British Columbians.

There certainly may be room to improve the efficiency of the regulatory approvals process for energy projects in the future. But standing up for Canada means ensuring that energy developers don’t profit from extracting our resources and degrading our environment while Canadians are stuck paying for the cleanup bill. This is quite contrary to the Harper government’s apparent desire to bulldoze any opposition to the government’s oil-sands-development agenda – especially when that opposition emerges from within our borders.

Minister Oliver states that, ‘Our regulatory system must be fair, independent, consider different viewpoints including those of Aboriginal communities, review the evidence dispassionately and then make an objective determination. It must be based on science and the facts.’

We couldn’t agree more, and can’t help but point out the troubling disconnect between the minister’s call for a ‘dispassionate’ and ‘objective’ approach and his government’s blatant political interference in the process.

Consider the risks

Remember the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last summer? The fact is, such a disastrous spill could easily happen here, too. Canada’s environment commissioner recently warned Parliament that pipeline regulators were being too lax in their efforts to ensure safety, pipeline integrity, and environmental protection. And our research into the risks of transporting oil-sands crude by pipeline along the Gateway route shows that neither the Canadian government nor the project’s proponent, Enbridge, is prepared to deal with the consequences of a worst-case-scenario spill.

Canadians are right to be concerned about the costs and risks associated with this project. The hearings kicking off this week are designed to ensure that the government takes those concerns into account before rushing this project ahead.

Too bad the government doesn’t seem to be in the mood to listen.

Nathan Lemphers is a senior policy analyst with the Pembina Institute, a national non-partisan sustainable energy think-tank.

Counterpoint: ‘Radical’ environmentalists getting their comeuppance

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