VANCOUVER/CALGARY (Reuters) - Canada’s government has a responsibility to make sure people can take advantage of the economic benefits Alberta’s massive oil deposits can generate, the country’s energy minister said on Monday as he once again decried “radicals” bent on stopping Enbridge Inc’s Northern Gateway oil pipeline.
As about 50 protesters demonstrated noisily outside, Joe Oliver, minister of natural resources, said in Vancouver that “environmental and other radical groups” are indiscriminately opposing any and all large industrial projects and are using Canada’s regulatory system as their main battleground.
“They seek to exploit any loophole they can find, stacking public hearings with bodies to ensure that delays kill good projects,” Oliver said.
Such delays will send investment capital fleeing and sully Canada’s reputation, he warned.
Public hearings into the C$5.5 billion ($5.4 billion)Northern Gateway pipeline to the West Coast from Alberta’s oil sands began this month. More than 4,000 people have registered to comment at the proceedings, which resume in Edmonton Tuesday.
Oliver and other government officials have said many of the green groups opposed to Northern Gateway are funded by foreign interests that want nothing else but to disrupt Canadian trade. He said he plans to find ways to streamline the “unpredictable and needlessly complex” regulatory regime to cut down on the time it takes for approvals.
He made his remarks as a University of Alberta study urged the oil-rich provincial government to forge closer ties with China on its own to bolster energy trade through such export projects as Northern Gateway.
Many who oppose the pipeline, which include environmentalists and numerous aboriginal communities along the proposed route, accuse the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper of meddling in the quasijudicial regulatory process for Northern Gateway with its increasingly harsh rhetoric.
“I think it is a complete red herring to say that all these people are opposed to any development,” said Josh Paterson, a lawyer with West Coast Environmental Law, a non-profit, legal aid group in British Columbia.
Paterson said many of the protesters were people who worked in the resources sector themselves but were concerned about possible oil spills on land or in coastal waters.
Ottawa and the oil industry back the project and its promise of opening up huge new markets for oil derived from the tar sands, the world’s third-largest oil deposit, which could boost returns for producers now smarting from Washington’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline to Texas last week.
It would move 525,000 barrels a day to the port of Kitimat, on the British Columbia coast, where it would be shipped to Asia on supertankers and priced against more valuable oil benchmarks.
The University of Alberta’s China Institute said Alberta government officials should expand their connections in China’s vast energy policy-making ranks, alongside the more formal process being led by Ottawa, to take advantage of that prosepct.
Alberta had already begun to seek closer ties. Last year Premier Alison Redford named former government minister Gary Mar to head a new office in Hong Kong. Chinese state-controlled enterprises have invested C$15 billion in oil sands and other Canadian energy assets in the past decade.
As Alberta seeks a major bump in revenues, China urgently needs to expand its suppliers, said Gordon Houlden, the institute’s director and a former Canadian diplomat in China.
Canada’s dealings with aboriginal communities, known as first nations, represent among the most complicated politics in the quest to build larger energy links, Houlden said.
“(China) is dangerously dependent on the Middle East, including Iran, of all places, so there’s a coherence of interests there that’s forming between Canada and China on energy,” he said.
“With first nations, and I’m not an expert on that, there are a whole bundle of issues that have nothing to do with energy - historical grievances, land grievances - and frankly I have a lot of sympathy for the first nation people’s views on this.
“But how that one is going to be squared is going to take federal leadership and provincial leadership, not just corporate leadership, to be sure.”
Reporting By Nicole Mordant; editing by Peter Galloway