Natural Resources Canada has evolved into the Department of Oil and Gas

A few decades ago, the department now known as Natural Resources Canada was called Energy, Mines, and Resources. The department had robust analysis and did work on our energy sector, as well as mines, and substantial research and science and policy innovation in forestry.

Under Stephen Harper, the slaying of the Canadian Forest Service was devastating. The Pacific Forest Research Centre was closed, with cuts to other CFS science centres. Programs like Model Forests and annual State of the Forests reports were cancelled.

When you talk to people in mining or forestry these days, they refer to NRCan as the Department of Oil and Gas. The Harper version of environmental assessment, omnibus budget bill C-38, was crafted to fast-track pipeline approvals. No one noticed or cared that the level of scrutiny on mining projects was higher nor that the mining industry had an entirely different level of rigour.

If an oilsands project threatened the survival of caribou, it could proceed. If the same herd of caribou was threatened by a proposed mine, the mine was stalled. Bear in mind, as leader of the Green Party, protecting caribou is a core mission. But so, too, is fairness. One industry sector has a right to the same level of review as any other industry.

Strangely, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and the fossil fuel lobby have now set their sights on killing C-69, the Liberals’ response to Harper’s C-38.

The truth is that C-69 maintains Harper’s architecture on environmental assessments. It ignores the advice from the expert panel on environmental assessment, led by former environment commissioner Johanne Gélinas and mandated by Justin Trudeau’s administration. The expert panel held public sessions in every province and territory and received thousands of submissions. The total cost of the exercise was more than a million dollars. The report was excellent. But the internal advice from a now-captive agency, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA), was to reject it. So, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna did.

The resulting bill, C-69, does not meet Liberal election promises. It maintains Harper’s slashing of environmental assessments. Post-election, I pressed all key ministers and CEAA executives to keep those promises and restore the 2006 version of environmental assessments. That law, brought in under former prime minister Brian Mulroney, worked well. Very few projects were ever turned down outright.

In fact, from the dawn of environmental assessment in Canada under an Order in Council Guideline in 1975, through 1993 legislation, right up to repeal of the law in 2012, only two projects were ever rejected. But Harper set out to destroy federal environmental review. I knew we were in trouble in 2016 when a CEAA executive told me: “We mustn’t throw the baby out with the bath water.” My response was: “What baby? The bathwater of Harper’s EA process is toxic. No baby in that bathwater.”

The new impact assessment law, C-69, is an only slightly improved version of the 2012 CEAA. Yet, the oil lobby has targeted the bill as though it would prevent pipelines from being built. I do not like the bill, but the tactics of those opposing the bill—fake groups like Suits and Boots—are worrying. The intensity with which they want to attack the bill now extends to attacking any industry that does not side with them. Unfortunately, many environmental groups are rallying around the bill just because the oil lobby is against it. The resulting campaigns are ramping up into a nasty ideological battle losing all connection to what the bill actually says.

The question that looms larger all the time is how the hell did the fossil fuel lobby take over our government? Forestry and mining are important sectors. They employ far more people than fossil fuels. The other natural resources, like agriculture and fisheries, have their own departments. But Natural Resources Canada is now the Department of Oil and Gas.

Kevin Taft, former leader of the Alberta Liberal Party, describes in his book Oil’s Deep State how the same thing happened in Alberta. How is it that the province’s premier, Rachel Notley, now rejects the very positions she once espoused? No longer does she press for raising royalty rates. While she claims support for more upgraders and refineries, she presses far harder to export raw bitumen to other countries for refining there. Buying train cars is a foolish investment compared to putting Albertans to work in value-added of their own resources. That strategy is what has led to the surfeit of bitumen and plunging revenues. In trying to explain her transformation, Taft observed: “Rachel Notley may be in office, but the oil industry is in power.”

Federally, we are not provided accurate information about the economics of pipelines. The mania to support fossil fuels emanates from a department more steeped in propaganda than reality. It is a pale shadow of what was once Energy, Mines, and Resources.