Tim Naumetz
The Hill Times
Environment Minister Peter Kent had not yet received his first briefing from his new department when he set off a storm of controversy by launching a campaign in defence of Alberta’s oil sands, prompting environmentalists to say there is little doubt Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave him his marching orders to begin selling the image of “ethical oil” to the U.S. and beyond.
“If in fact he proceeded in advance of his departmental briefing, that lack of prudence and consideration is very worrisome,” Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence Canada, told The Hill Times. “The last thing this complicated issue needs is a shoot-from-the-hip approach by the environment minister. Canadians need the environment minister to provide some leadership and some thoughtfulness on this issue, and to present Canadians with some real solutions, not to further inflame the debate.”
The top press aide to Mr. Kent (Thornhill, Ont.) declined to confirm the timing of Mr. Kent’s first official briefings as environment minister, but they took place last week, a full week after Mr. Kent outlined his ethical oil argument in the first newspaper interview he conducted after he took up his new post. The interview, on Jan. 5, the day after Mr. Kent was sworn in, was with a reporter from the Calgary Herald, the largest newspaper in Alberta’s oil-patch corporate capital, where the petroleum generals who oversee the massive and controversial oil sands mines reside.
“There has been a demonizing of a legitimate resource,” Mr. Kent told Calgary Herald journalist Renata D’aliesio, whose report was published on Jan. 6 in the Herald and The Edmonton Journal. “It is ethical oil, it is regulated oil, and it’s secure oil in a world where many of the free world’s oil sources are somewhat less secure.”
The day after Mr. Kent’s remarks made headlines, Prime Minister Harper (Calgary Southwest, Alta.), in response to media questions about Mr. Kent when the Prime Minister was appearing in an NDP-held riding in Welland, Ont., backed Mr. Kent’s controversial statement and, in hindsight, signalled he likely gave Mr. Kent his first task as environment minister when Mr. Kent accepted the job.
“The reality is that Canada is a very ethical society and a very secure source of energy for the United States, compared to other sources, so that’s a major asset that we want to explain to the rest of the world,” Mr. Harper said.
In a series of online Hill Times stories last week, an array of environmentalists in Canada and the U.S. criticized Mr. Harper’s plan to use his environment minister as the chief spokesman to defend the oil sands, which produce five per cent of Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions, a share that will slowly mushroom under plans to expand production.
Mr. Smith and other environmentalists The Hill Times spoke to later were further surprised when informed that Mr. Kent began his campaign without apparently first gathering detailed information or recommendations from his new Environment Canada department on the highly complex subject.
“It is unfortunate,” said Simon Dyer, policy director at the Pembina Institute in Calgary, who was head of the institute’s oil sands research and policy development section for five years. Mr. Dyer said his group has not yet been contacted by Mr. Kent or his office, although it has had relations with past environment ministers, including former Conservative MP Jim Prentice, who resigned from the post and also gave up his House of Commons seat last November.
“Obviously we are looking to brief minister Kent and ensure he gets what we think is a fair reflection of the facts on the ground,” Mr. Dyer said. “Unfortunately, it is symptomatic of how the government of Canada and the government of Alberta have treated criticism of the oil sands, rather than acknowledging the criticism as evidence that there are management gaps they need to address. Unfortunately, we’ve been in this public relations battle for a number of years.”
Mr. Kent’s communications director, Bill Rodgers, the long-time communications director for Mr. Prentice before his resignation, said Mr. Kent was in his riding and would not be available for an interview request until this week. Mr. Rodgers did not respond when asked in an email if Mr. Harper or his office had given Mr. Kent instructions and briefings on the campaign to portray oil from the oil sands as ethical—a term coined by Conservative insider and Calgary author Ezra Levant—and referred the question to Mr. Harper’s media office. Mr. Harper’s press secretary, Andrew MacDougall, did not respond to an email on the topic.
Andrew Nikiforuk, another Calgary author and environmental writer, but one who is highly critical of the oil sands, said it appears Mr. Harper selected Toronto-area MP Mr. Kent as his environment minister because, as a well-known former journalist and past Global news anchor, Mr. Kent is ideally fitted for an attempt to salvage the image of the oil sands, particularly in the U.S.
Canada has already displaced Saudi Arabia as the largest single supplier of oil to the United States, which is Canada’s only current market for oil exports. An extension of a pipeline that carries oil sands petroleum into the U.S. Midwest faces lawsuits and stiff opposition, in part, because its route would pass over a freshwater aquifer that spans eight states and provides drinking water for two million Americans.
The pipeline eventually would deliver unrefined oil sands bitumen, mixed with natural gas, to refineries on the U.S. coast of the Gulf of Mexico for refining and upgrading.
“Harper put him in that position because he’s a master communicator and that’s what they want, they want, not somebody who’s going to do something, they want someone who can take the heat on this on a daily basis and give us an infomercial on bitumen,” Mr. Nikiforuk said.
Mr. Levant, whose book, published last September, provided Mr. Harper and Mr. Kent with the argument that oil sands oil is more ethical than oil from Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Nigeria and other countries that are undemocratic or suppress human rights, told The Hill Times he is not concerned about the environmental or pipeline worries in the U.S.
“I don’t have an opinion about that,” Mr. Levant said. “Let them decide where that pipeline goes, I don’t care where their pipeline goes, that’s an American decision. Seriously, do I care where that pipeline goes? What I care about is foreign lobbyists coming into Canada and telling us what we can and can’t produce here.”