Greg Rickford takes on natural resources post at critical time

Greg Rickford, who replaces Joe Oliver as the new federal minister of natural resources, will be under the microscope from environmental groups, industry and First Nations. He's got one of the toughest portfolios in government.

New natural resources minister faces opposition to pipelines and growing industry pressure to deliver

Greg Rickford leaves Rideau Hall with his daughter, Abigail Mae, after he was sworn in as minister of natural resources on March 19, 2014. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Greg Rickford is jumping from the frying pan right into the fire with his new job.

Rickford is replacing Joe Oliver as the new federal minister of natural resources — one of the toughest portfolios around.

The 47-year-old MP from Kenora, Ont., brings some useful experience as the minister for economic development in Northern Ontario and for Ontario's Ring of Fire

He was also the minister for science and technology and has some background with First Nations as the former parliamentary secretary to the minister of aboriginal affairs and northern development.

But Rickford will be under the microscope from environmental groups, industry and First Nations. 

"It is a huge job in cabinet," said Tim Powers, vice-chairman of Summa Strategies in Ottawa.

Powers, who knows Rickford both personally and professionally, calls it a really "smart appointment."

"He understands the challenges — from First Nations to labour to industry," said Powers in an interview with CBC News.

"He's a straight-up guy and a loyal team player." 

'Staunch advocate' for natural resources

The government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper considers resource development to be the key driver for the economy. And in a statement Wednesday, it's clear Rickford won't veer too far from the script. 

“I will be a staunch advocate for Canada’s abundant natural resources and the thousands of jobs this sector creates for all Canadians," he said.

"We will continue to promote Canadian natural resources in new and emerging energy markets, ensure world-class environmental protection and secure Canada’s place as a 21st-century resource superpower.”

That's good news for the oil and gas industry that welcomed Rickford's appointment. 

'He understands the challenges —from First Nations to labour to industry.He's a straight-up guy and a loyal team player.'- Tim Powers, vice-chariman of Summa Strategies

Janet Annesley, the vice president of communications for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, says Rickford isn't well known in the industry. But she points to his varied career — including both nurse and lawyer — in Northern Ontario.

"We have a great minister with a strong background in everything from health and wellness and to aboriginal relations ... I think it's a strong signal the government will stay its course on responsible development," she said in an interview with CBC Calgary.

Rickford takes over the resource portfolio at a crucial point. 

Controversial pipelines

He'll have to help steer the federal cabinet decision on the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline expected by June. And it's likely the U.S. decision on the Keystone XL pipeline will come under his watch as well. 

Other increasingly controversial pipelines such as Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain and TransCanada's Energy East pipeline proposals are also heating up on the corner of his new desk.

But improving relations with B.C.'s First Nations over their strong opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline will be job number 1. 

Art Sterritt, the executive director of B.C.'s Coastal First Nations, is waiting to look him in the eye.

Rickford has previously served as minister for economic development in Northern Ontario, minister for science and technology and as the parliamentary secretary to the minister of aboriginal affairs and northern development, where he dealt extensively with First Nations groups. (The Canadian Press)

"First Nations will have to meet with Mr. Rickford and let him know just exactly what it takes to develop natural resources in this country," said Sterritt in an interview from Vancouver. "He needs to be enlightened sooner rather than later." 

Aboriginal communities say the federal government isn't properly ensuring their constitutional rights to be consulted over resource projects or making industry prove it can clean up oil spills.

But Summa's Tim Powers thinks Rickford is ready for the challenge. He was actively involved in the government's response to the Idle No More movement that started in December 2012.

"He just dove in, and took over the task of communication. He took a lead role," said Powers. "The PM was impressed with how he handled Idle No More." 

Environmentalists skeptical

But environmentalists remain unconvinced. Keith Stewart from Greenpeace thinks Rickford inherits a department that has a poisoned public image partly because of the former minister's style.

"Joe Oliver gave the industry everything it wanted," said Stewart in an interview from Toronto. "And the result was they've undercut the social licence."

Stewart says Oliver's controversial open letter in January 2012,  where he blamed "environmentalists and other radical groups" for holding up resource development projects, was the point where anti-pipeline opinion started to grow.

"The feds may give permission to build the pipeline, but they can't build the pipeline."

He says if Rickford accomplishes one thing as minister, it should be to make sure First Nations give "prior and informed consent" before a shovel goes in the ground.

But it appears Greg Rickford is taking over as tempers are cooling off and relations are improving.

In fact, Art Sterritt from Coastal First Nations regrets that Joe Oliver has left the job just as he was getting the hang of it.

"He didn't get it a year or so ago, characterizing opposition to Northern Gateway as being un-Canadian. But I think he began to realize we had legitimate concerns and they would have to be dealt with," said Sterritt. 

"If this minister takes any lessons from that he will be well served in his new role."