Huge expectations await Canada’s new environment and natural resources ministers, who will have to hit the ground running to deliver on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s climate change and environment priorities so bitumen pipelines can move forward.
Ottawa Centre MP and lawyer Catherine McKenna is heading the environment and climate change portfolio, while Winnipeg South Centre MP, business leader and former journalist Jim Carr is taking over natural resources.
Highlighting the importance and connection between the two, Trudeau established a cabinet committee on the environment, climate change and energy that will be chaired by former Liberal leader and now foreign affairs minister Stephane Dion, also known for championing carbon taxes in 2008 as part of his unsuccessful Green Shift program.
“I don’t think it’s panic-button stuff, but if you are looking to dig just below the surface … the cabinet committee would be very environment friendly rather than resource friendly,” said one Calgary-based energy industry observer.
It’s not gone unnoticed, either, that both portfolios are headed by representatives of regions outside Canada’s major oil producing centres.
During the election campaign, the Liberals said they would work with the provinces to put a price on carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but were also supportive of building new pipelines.
“Canada needs new infrastructure, including pipelines, to move our energy resources to domestic and global markets,” the Liberals said. “However these projects must earn the trust of local communities, respect Indigenous rights, and cannot put our lands and waters at risk.” They also said blamed the Conservatives’ “polarizing approach to resource development and pipelines” for keeping projects from moving forward.
The new approach involves McKenna leading a hefty Canadian delegation to Paris at the end of this month for the United Nations meeting to negotiate a new global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
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“Canada is going to be a strong and positive actor on the world stage, including in Paris at COP21,” Trudeau said outside Rideau Hall following Wednesday’s swearing-in.
“That’s why we have a very strong minister — not just of the environment, but minister of the environment and climate change — who will be at the heart of this discussion.”
McKenna, who defeated NDP MP Paul Dewar, brings international experience to the job and is seen as highly capable to handle Trudeau’s hot-button issue.
“We welcome this government’s efforts to restore Canada’s stature as a constructive voice in the upcoming global climate talks, and to collaborate with the provinces and territories to reduce carbon pollution here at home,” said Merran Smith, executive director of Vancouver-based Clean Energy Canada. “Including climate change in Minister McKenna’s title signals how high a priority climate action is to our new federal government.”
McKenna was born in Hamilton and studied international relations at the London School of Economics before earning a law degree from McGill University. She has practiced law in both Ottawa and Indonesia, focusing on international trade, competition, investment and constitutional issues.
She co-founded and led a charitable organization, Canadian Lawyers Abroad (now known as Level) and later became executive director of the Banff Forum, a non-profit aimed at raising the level of policy debate in Canada.
McKenna will also be responsible for improving environmental assessments of pipeline projects, which could impact the reviews of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and the TransCanada Corp. Energy East pipeline project now under way.
Russ Girling, president and CEO TransCanada, said he expects developing market access to remain a priority of the new Liberal government.
“We have been at this the last sixty years and I suspect we will be at it for the next sixty years,” he said ahead of the cabinet announcement Tuesday. “The need for modern, safe transportation remains critical.”
Carr enters the natural resources portfolio as Canada’s oil and gas industry continues to downsize from a combination of low oil prices, climate change and fiscal policy uncertainty, new competition from U.S. tight oil production.
The founding CEO of the Business Council of Manitoba and the Winnipeg Economic Development Initiative, Carr is expected to be an energy-friendly voice at the cabinet table.
“With no prior experience with the industry, he will need to be brought up to speed quickly,” Calgary-based government relations firm Global Public Affairs said in an analysis for its clients. “Carr is known to be pro-business, and will appreciate the current challenges facing the resource industry.”
In his election platform, Carr talked about balancing resource development and environmental stewardship.
“A country can’t have an energy policy without an agenda to protect our land, air and water. We have international responsibilities to reduce green-house gas emissions and we should say so with conviction.”
Carr started his career as an oboist and trustee with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. He then moved to journalism, working as a reporter and columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press, CBC Radio and The Globe and Mail. He was elected to the Manitoba Legislature in 1988, becoming deputy leader of the Liberal Party.
While the oil and gas industry is increasingly accepting there are new environmental priorities, Carr’s biggest challenge may be to convince it that Canada is still a good place for the business.