Stephen Harper’s ministers counter green groups’ “black out” with PR campaign

Published by Postmedia News on Monday June 4, 2012

OTTAWA – Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet ministers fanned out across the country Monday to counter a “black out” campaign launched by charities that are accusing the government of using budgetary measures to weaken federal environmental oversight and intimidate critics.

Led by Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, the cabinet ministers used their campaign to tout the government’s budget plan and its supporting legislation, which would rewrite several environmental laws and significantly reduce the number of federal scientists monitoring Canada’s air, wildlife, waterways and oceans.

More than 500 groups, including some south of the border in the United States, symbolically blacked out their websites to protest the measures in the budget and its supporting legislation, Bill C-38. They claim the plan is the result of intensive lobby efforts from the oil and gas industry.

The groups have also denounced some ministers in government for making unfounded allegations that suggest the groups are involved in criminal conspiracies. The charities further questioned the motives behind increased federal funding for the Canada Revenue Agency to investigate their operations.

Among the allegations, Environment Minister Peter Kent has in the past accused the groups of doing “money laundering” – before admitting it was a “figure of speech.” His Conservative colleagues in the Senate have also suggested Canadian environmentalists are conspiring with aliens from another planet and terrorists.

Oliver and nine other cabinet ministers argued Monday that the budget and its supporting measures would boost economic growth without sacrificing environmental-protection measures and policies.

“Responsible resource development will ensure that our abundant natural resources are developed in a sustainable way for the benefit of all Canadians,” Oliver said at an event in Gatineau, Que., near Ottawa.

Rick Smith, the executive director of Environmental Defence, a charity group that has worked closely with the Harper government in support of its plan to manage toxic manmade substances, mocked the ministers for their efforts to contradict the “black out” campaign.

“The amazing thing is that when these 10 ministers speak, you can barely see Big Oil’s lips moving,” Smith joked at a news conference. “Make no mistake, Bill C-38 is not a simple budget measure. It’s the latest expression of an agenda to dismember any effective federal oversight of environmental protection.”

He noted that the Conservative party never campaigned on any of the policy changes it is now proposing in government, but was pressed into action because of U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2011 decision to delay approval of TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL pipeline expansion project, which would allow Canadian oil companies to increase exports to refineries on the gulf coast of Texas.

Smith said that other companies in the forestry, fisheries and mining industry have worked with conservation groups to reduce their environmental footprints and promote sustainable development, but the oil and gas industry is taking an adversarial approach.

“There’s one industry in this country that’s knuckle-dragging, that is aggressive, that is used to getting its own way and that clearly, in the wake of the Keystone XL decision, went like a bunch of crybabies to the federal government, demanding that the government do something to push through these pipeline projects at all costs,” Smith said.

“The one commonality of all these changes to environmental statute is that their undermining was on the oil industry’s wish list,” Smith said.

Travis Davies, a spokesman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, defended the federal government’s proposed overhaul of environmental protection laws, expressing “frustration” that “activists have chosen name-calling over constructive debate.”

He said that regulatory reform is not weakening environmental outcomes.

“It’s about timely decisions, clear process, public transparency and an efficient regulatory regime for all Canadian industries that helps Canada compete for global capital,” said Davies, echoing arguments adopted by the government.

“Today’s blackout campaign completely ignores the fact that regulatory reform is necessary and applicable to all Canada’s major projects (and) industries, and will increase Canada’s competitiveness, ability to attract investment, employment and overall economic strength while continuing to meet the same environmental requirements as previous.”

Davies added the reforms were also positive changes for other sectors, such as mining, forestry, infrastructure and manufacturing as well as other development plans, such as the Ring of Fire in Ontario and Quebec’s Plan Nord.

Quebec Premier Jean Charest has said regulatory reforms were not necessary in Quebec since a joint environmental review process has already reduced levels of duplication.

NDP leader Thomas Mulcair also criticized the government in the House of Commons on Monday for suggesting it would replace a specialized team of Environment Canada smokestack monitoring scientists, by outsourcing work to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“Usually countries try to take care of their own environment,” Mulcair said. “We don’t outsource it.”

Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney responded that his government has made more environmental progress than any other regime in “the history of the dominion,” through various measures, such as stronger tailpipe standards for vehicles, restrictions on toxins, and increased enforcement policies.

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