Canada's National Energy Board an oil sands “ally”?
Government documents obtained by the Climate Action Network describe the National Energy Board as an “ally” in oil sands advocacy, while enviro groups and First Nations are seen as "adversaries". So what does this mean for the Northern Gateway pipeline?
Newly released documents outlining the government’s “Pan-European oil sands advocacy strategy” depict the National Energy Board as an “ally” while environmental groups, media and First Nations are described as “adversaries”.
The Canadian Climate Action Network obtained the documents through a freedom of information request, as part of an investigation into government tactics to promote the oil sands in foreign markets. Through their request, CAN was given access to emails containing the strategy, sent in April 2011 by a Canadian diplomat in London named Kumar Gupta.
The detailed strategy was part of an “aggressive” lobby in Europe launched in December 2009 by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), working alongside the Ministry of Natural Resources, Environment Canada and the Alberta government. Information requests from independent publication The Dominion revealed this “secret oil offensive” last spring. At the time, oil sands advocates were concerned about the EU’s Fuel Quality Directive, a climate change policy that would impose restrictions on tar sands crude if producers didn’t clean up their act.
The documents obtained by CAN contain a charted summary of the coordinated strategy, listing a number of “allies” and “adversaries” related to oil sands advocacy. Under “adversaries”, the document lists environmental NGOs, Aboriginal groups, media and competing industries.
This characterization of environmental groups and First Nations appears to be in line with current political commentary around the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline, as environmentalists have been called “radicals” by government officials and have been accused of delaying or “hijacking” the regulatory review process. The federal government refuted recent claims that these groups are being targeted as “enemies of Canada”, but use of the term “adversary” in ministry documents doesn’t help their argument.
The “allies” column on the oil sands document includes some of the usual suspects: Canadian petroleum producers, industry associations, the Natural Resources Department and the Government of Alberta. But the most noteworthy addition is the National Energy Board—an “independent federal agency” whose self-proclaimed purpose is to “regulate pipelines, energy development and trade in the Canadian public interest.”
So what does this mean?
While it may not come as much of a surprise that Aboriginal and environmental groups are considered opponents of oil sands development, the NEB’s position as an “ally” is a somewhat more startling revelation.
According to Hannah McKinnon, Campaigns Director at the Climate Action Network, this information calls the purpose and integrity of the political body into question.
“The NEB is meant to be an independent body that comes in and looks at the science, looks at the facts of specific projects in an objective way, and then approves them based on sound analysis and science,” she said in an interview with the Observer.
“They’re not meant to be an arm of a political game, so it’s really disturbing to see the government referring to them in that way.”
Although the documents in question relate specifically to the oil lobby’s tactics in Europe, McKinnon says it’s a clear indication of the government’s overarching strategy around oil sands development. This information is particularly significant right now given the fact that the NEB is the body responsible for carrying out the ongoing Joint Review Panel hearings to decide the fate of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline.
“These are the guys that give sober second thought to projects, and who are meant to be the experts who can make the objective analysis. So this indicates that their analysis is not as objective as it probably should be,” McKinnon said.
“This issue is about a dangerous pipeline that is going to lead to the expansion of our fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas pollution. [Government officials] don’t want to talk about it and they don’t want to hear critiques of it, so they’re doing everything possible to silence really important and legitimate concerns in this process.”
Ministers deny labeling
Despite repeated use of the term “radical” in recent political rhetoric regarding pipeline opposition, federal ministers were quick to distance themselves from documents containing the “ally” and “adversary” labels.
In a Vancouver Sun article, Environment Minister Peter Kent said labeling groups as such is not part of the government’s approach. He claimed he had not seen the documents, and specifically questioned the targeting of First Nations.
"I think that's a gross mischaracterization of reality. I think that any of our messaging, whether in Canada, elsewhere on the continent, in Europe or in Asia is based on facts and science. We do recognize there are some groups characterized by my colleague as 'radical' and they are very narrowly focused on certain areas they perceive to be unacceptable in a variety of ways. We intend to fully push back and to counter that but again respectfully and with facts and with science."
- Minister of the Environment Peter Kent, Vancouver Sun, Jan. 26 2011
International Trade minister Ed Fast also took issue with the document. In the Sun article, a spokesperson for Fast said their department “does not agree with the characterizations” and is continuing to “work together with Canada’s First Nations” in promoting the country’s energy interests.
A spokesperson from the NEB said the board remains “free from influence” and does not promote any specific projects, including the oil sands. But for environmental advocates like McKinnon, these officials’ claims do little to calm suspicions about the federal government’s pro-oil strategy.
“It’s very extraordinary the level of coordination and resources that they’re clearly pouring into this. I mean, our sole climate change and energy policy seems to be trying to undermine and kill foreign climate change and energy policies,” said McKinnon.
“It’s outrageous. We’re at the helm of a climate crisis and this government is doing everything in its power to silence their critics and ensure that nothing gets in the way of what’s ultimately a really reckless approach.”