It was a year ago today that federal Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver declared war on environmentalists. You may recall his opening salvo was an open letter attacking “environmental and other radical groups” that “threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda.”

Canada’s regulatory system was “broken”, he declared, and changing it was “an urgent matter of Canada’s national interest.”

So it is interesting to learn that 13 months ago, the heads of the four major oil and gas lobby groups wrote to Joe Oliver and Minister of the Environment Peter Kent to explain that they had a problem.

Simply put, they believed that environmental laws were too focused on protecting the environment and they wanted this changed.

In their letter to the Ministers (obtained by Greenpeace under Access to Information legislation), they wrote:

“[W]e believe that the basic approach embodied in existing legislation is out-dated. At the heart of most existing legislation is a philosophy of prohibiting harm; 'environmental' legislation is almost entirely focused on preventing bad things from happening rather than enabling responsible outcomes. This results in a position of adversarial prohibition, rather than enabling collaborative conservation to achieve agreed common goals.”

The oil industry associations explicitly identified the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the Species at Risk Act, the National Energy Board Act, the Migratory Birds Convention Act and the Navigable Waters Protection Act as part of this “out-dated” approach (for more on their preferred approach, see this earlier blog).

The federal government was quick to concur and respond.

Already working closely with the oil industry, they listed it as “allies” in the federal government’s Oil Sands Advocacy Strategy, environmental and Aboriginal groups were in the “adversaries” column.

Then the government moved on their proposed legislative agenda.

The Harper government’s omnibus budget bills introduced the most sweeping changes to environmental law in Canadian history. All of it designed to make it easier for resource-extraction industries to get their projects approved: 

  • Almost 3,000 environmental assessments were cancelled, as new rules were put in place to ensure that there would be fewer (and less comprehensive) environmental assessments in the future.
  • Protections for fish and fish habitat were narrowed, leaving most freshwater fishes with a much lower level of habitat protection. This is important because the loss or degradation of habitat is the most important factor leading to a decline in the health of species worldwide.
  • The Navigable Waters Protection Act was renamed the Navigation Protection Act and federal protection for waterways was limited to only 62 rivers, 97 lakes and the three oceans. This was a boon to companies like Shell that were facing uncomfortable questions about their proposal to reroute 21 kilometres of the Muskeg River so they could build a new open pit tar sands mine, but was of concern to First Nations who use waterways as a means to access their traditional territories and exercise their constitutional rights to hunt, fish and trap.
  • Cabinet ministers (i.e. politicians, rather than independent agencies like the National Energy Board) were given greater authority to make final decisions about what is or isn’t good for the environment.
  • Much to the dismay of the international scientific community, the civil service which enforces environmental laws was cut, as was the government’s own scientific capacity.
  • Environment Minister Peter Kent claimed that Canadian environmental groups concerned about the expansion of the tar sands were being “used to launder off-shore foreign funds". This ludicrous assertion was the excuse for new rules in the budget bill in order to crack down on politically active charities, along with $8 million for stepped up audits in what the Globe and Mail has called a “witch hunt”

These major changes were passed quickly and with only the most cursory debate in Parliamentary, although the changes to the Navigable Water Act helped spark the grassroots Idle No More campaign.

Faced with growing opposition to new tar sands pipelines across the country and challenges to new mines in Alberta, the attacks haven’t ended but they have changed tack.

The government has launched a $9 million greenwashing ad campaign this year on “responsible resource development” and Minister Oliver has signalled they’ll spend a lot more next year.

Meanwhile, the oil industry is spending millions more on ads in an effort to improve their image.

Unfortunately, the science keeps contradicting their green claims.

And apparently the only responsibility the Harper government recognizes is to the oil industry.

That strategy may be backfiring. The oil industry may well get faster approvals from governments, but that doesn’t mean that they can get projects like Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway built.

For when the federal government becomes a cheerleaders for industry, Canadians (and in particular First Nations) are preparing to step up and protect the environment themselves. And the result is that the harder the Harper government tries to push through new tar sand mines and pipelines, the stronger the opposition becomes.