Energy projects benefit all Canadians, Oliver argues

Joe Oliver made a pitch Friday to convince Canadians to support oilsands and other projects, while distancing himself from documents portraying environmental and aboriginal groups as "adversaries."

Natural Resources minister says he's willing to meet with environmentalists if asked

The federal government is ramping up its sales job to convince Canadians to support big energy projects.

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver told Toronto's Economic Club of Canada Friday that resource projects have a direct effect on everyone in the country, including Ontario's struggling manufacturing sector. And it's clear his strategy is to wrap the message in bread-and-butter terms.

"Canadian manufacturing workers know it's about the new work creating machinery for our resource sector. Pensioners know it's about that promising investment that will help create more secure retirement and Canadians know it's about creating economic growth to provide social services we depend on."

The Harper government is determined to find new markets for its petroleum, and it's anxious to export oil to Asia to help in that diversification. That oil will come from the proposed tripling of production in Alberta's oilsands, which is increasingly controversial.

The National Energy Board is now considering a proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline that will bring oil from Alberta to Kitimat, B.C.

"The oilsands will generate 700,000 jobs a year over the next 25 years and provide billions of revenue to government to fund social programs that can help housing, health care and pensions," Oliver told the Toronto audience.

But big energy projects require environmental assessments and those can often take years to complete.

The government is making it a top priority to streamline the process.

"We are not rubber-stamping the process, we believe every project that is approved must be safe for the environment and safe for Canadians. Furthermore, there has to be enough time for people with a legitimate interest to express their views and their concerns, including, of course, aboriginal communities," Oliver told reporters later.

Environmental campaigners stage a mock wedding between oil companies and Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver outside the venue for a noon speech by the minister in Toronto on Friday. (CBC)

But Oliver knows Canada has an image problem when it comes to the environmental effects of development.

Documents released yesterday by Greenpeace show his government was preparing to do battle to convince the European Union that Canadian oil should not be labelled dirtier than other types of fuel. The government had drawn up a chart of  "allies" — energy companies —and "adversaries" — the media, environmentalists and aboriginal groups.

'Not my language'

Oliver distanced himself from that in a scrum with reporters.

"That was not my language. That was language used by a department official in another department," Oliver said. "I personally don't ascribe to those views."

"I think environmentalists in general are concerned about the same things that we are concerned with, which is to make sure that whatever industrial impact occurs is safe for the environment and for Canadians," Oliver added.

The natural resources minister tried to clarify previous remarks in which he described some oilsands opponents as "radicals." He says he objects to the actions of only some groups, not all.

"My complaint was with certain groups that want to hijack the system," Oliver said, suggesting these opponents want to intervene not just to air their views but rather to try to delay the process and kill oilsands development entirely.

Oliver also denied he's unwilling to hear the concerns of environmental groups.

"No environmental group has requested a meeting with me," Oliver said. "When they ask, I will say yes."