Joe Oliver vs. the radicals, or among them

Paul Wells on how this battle has been brewing for a while

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The Natural Resources Department was always where you worked if you thought environmentalists were a bunch of kooks. In the late 1990s, when the world was young and Kyoto was fresh and new, Natural Resources used to leak like a firehose right into the notebook of a colleague of mine at the National Post. Herb Dhaliwal, then the minister in charge, made a great show of driving an SUV the size of a hockey rink.

But the leaks were always anonymous and Herb’s SUV was a bit of an inside joke. Times change, and now we have Joe Oliver, who’s written (well, whose signature appears under) an open letter as significant in the annals of Conservative government as the ones Stéphane Dion used to write for Jean Chrétien.

There’s nothing subtle about it.

There are two main points to Oliver’s letter. First, the diversifying-energy-export notion the Prime Minister was so big on in his year-end interviews.

Canada is on the edge of an historic choice: to diversify our energy markets away from our traditional trading partner in the United States or to continue with the status quo.

Virtually all our energy exports go to the US. As a country, we must seek new markets for our products and services and the booming Asia-Pacific economies have shown great interest in our oil, gas, metals and minerals. For our government, the choice is clear: we need to diversify our markets in order to create jobs and economic growth for Canadians across this country. We must expand our trade with the fast growing Asian economies.

Remember that battle in the early years of this government over whether China should be embraced or shunned? Roughly, the fight between David Emerson and Jason Kenney? Over. Done. Kenney, who is not used to losing in today’s Ottawa, lost big.

But there’s more. I’ll highlight the most striking passages of what follows:

Unfortunately, there are environmental and other radical groups that would seek to block this opportunity to diversify our trade. Their goal is to stop any major project no matter what the cost to Canadian families in lost jobs and economic growth. No forestry. No mining. No oil. No gas. No more hydro-electric dams.

These groups threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda. They seek to exploit any loophole they can find, stacking public hearings with bodies to ensure that delays kill good projects. They use funding from foreign special interest groups to undermine Canada’s national economic interest. They attract jet-setting celebrities with some of the largest personal carbon footprints in the world to lecture Canadians not to develop our natural resources.

Finally, if all other avenues have failed, they will take a quintessential American approach: sue everyone and anyone to delay the project even further. They do this because they know it can work. It works because it helps them to achieve their ultimate objective: delay a project to the point it becomes economically unviable.

This is just a hunch, but I suspect the next massive round of Conservative Party advertising won’t be aimed against an opposition party. This is the sound the Harper machine makes when it’s gearing up for a big fight.

This has been coming for a while. The 2010 Throne Speech promised to “untangle the daunting maze of regulations that needlessly complicates project approvals.” That year’s budget said: “Responsibility for conducting environmental assessments for energy projects will be delegated from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency to the National Energy Board and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission for projects falling under their respective areas of expertise.” The oil industry couldn’t have been happier. But until now there’s been no follow-up.

Note the change in tone employed, one measure of the distance between a minority and a majority government. In 2010, the Harper government was laying down markers deliberately, but not rushing, not kicking up a fuss. That’s changed.

Elizabeth May, the Green Party leader, really didn’t like Oliver’s letter. Oliver almost immediately moderated his tone in spoken remarks. No matter. This letter, certainly vetted by the PMO if it didn’t originate there, is the script for what comes next. It ends: “It is an urgent matter of Canada’s national interest.”