Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said he didn’t ‘know very much’ about energy projects, emails reveal

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said he didn’t ‘know very much’ about energy projects, emails reveal by Mike De Souza, Postmedia News, November 1, 2012, Calgary Herald
OTTAWA—Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver told government officials — six months after he was on the job — that he did not “know very much” about energy projects and needed briefings so he could talk “knowledgeably” about the subject, internal emails have revealed.  The internal records also reveal he disagreed with the “full thrust” of comments from former environment minister Jim Prentice about cleaning up the oilsands industry. The release of the documents, obtained by Postmedia News through access to information legislation, had one opposition critic questioning whether Oliver, a Toronto MP and the lead federal minister on energy issues, was on top of his portfolio.

Oliver’s office said Wednesday the minister gets regular briefings and that the emails “speak for themselves.” It also added that the government was committed to “responsible development of Canada’s resources to create jobs.” The comments by Oliver last November were made in response to a Calgary Herald column on a speech by Prentice, now the senior executive vice president at CIBC. In the speech, Prentice, who resigned as environment minister in 2010, highlighted economic opportunities arising from energy projects, including the proposed Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipelines to the Texas gulf coast and the west coast of British Columbia, as well as hydroelectric development projects in Quebec, Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador.

“Jim Prentice’s speech has a lot of facts about energy projects, including the Northwest Upgrader, which I do not know very much about,” Oliver wrote in an email to his department’s deputy minister, Serge Dupont, on Nov. 28, 2011. “It would be useful for me to have someone do a review of the projects he mentions so that I am up to date on developments and can talk knowledgeably about what is going on, who is involved and the implications for regulatory review, jobs and economic growth.” Prentice had explained that the $15 billion Northwest Upgrader project would help upgrade bitumen — the heavy oil extracted by industry from oilsands deposits — and be critical to fuelling growth while reducing the environmental footprint of industrial activities. The former minister also said in his speech that energy leadership and environmental leadership were two sides of the same coin, and that Canada needed to become an environmental leader to avoid having other countries “dictate our environmental policies,” in connection with oilsands development.

But Oliver, 72, a lawyer and investment banker from Montreal who was appointed to cabinet by Prime Minister Stephen Harper following the May 2011 federal election, challenged Prentice’s views in the emails. “I don’t necessarily agree with the full thrust of Jim Prentice’s comments on the environment but he is right that we have to pay attention to the issue, which is what we are doing,” wrote Oliver in an email to political advisers in his office on Nov. 26, 2011.

Oliver, who earned degrees from McGill University and Harvard’s business school, has publicly described environmentalists over the past  year and a half as “extremists” and “radicals” who want to kill Canadian jobs.

Liberal natural resources critic David McGuinty said there was nothing wrong about a minister saying he or she needs to learn more about complicated files. But he suggested that a natural resources minister should have had a strong grasp of major energy projects in Canada within the first week of being appointed as minister. He also said the emails suggested that the prime minister is making all decisions on federal environment and energy policies, with little input from his ministers. “I get the impression that (Oliver) is looking for a bit of a lifeline here,” said McGuinty, who represents an Ottawa riding in Parliament. “Clearly there’s a rift… I think what (Oliver) is saying is that Mr. Prentice’s views are not aligned with the government’s hard line on environmental issues.”

The office at Natural Resources Canada, which processed the request through access to information legislation, said that the content of the emails was released by accident and should have been withheld under provisions of the law that allow the government to protect information under consultation or deliberation.

Postmedia News declined a request from the office to destroy the email records that included Oliver’s comments.

The Access to Information Act requires the government to release public records upon request from someone who pays a $5 fee. [Emphasis added]

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