Conservatives and NDP battle in war of words over competing energy policies

OTTAWA – Tom Mulcair says an NDP government would turn on its ear a Conservative policy that permits government to override environmental assessments of major energy projects.

He would allow government to kill projects before they even got as far as an environmental assessment.

“There are some things that some people would send to the NEB (National Energy Board) that we would say no to,” Mulcair told reporters at downtown Ottawa hotel Wednesday.

The NDP leader had just rolled out his party’s energy policy in a speech to the Economic Club of Canada, where he promised to “take arbitrary powers out of the hands of cabinet.”

Mulcair vowed to repeal Conservative legislation that gives government fiat to override National Energy Board assessments on major resource projects.

The provision has raised alarms among environmentalists who fear governments could approve projects that fail the independent environmental review.

However Mulcair substituted his own arbitrary power when he explained later to reporters that an NDP government would have killed the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipeline proposals without NEB input.

Environment assessments, once completed, have to be respected, Mulcair said.

“What you can do, though, is just simply decide that some things — like the Northern Gateway pipeline would be a good example — are non-starters.”

Similarly, TransCanada’s $5.4-billion Keystone pipeline to the U.S. Gulf Coast, which was given the green light from the National Energy Board in 2010, never should have had a hearing, said Mulcair.

“Based on our approach to sustainable development, we would have never sent something like that to the NEB,” he said.

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, who delivered his own energy policy pitch in a Vancouver speech Wednesday, was rendered almost speechless by Mulcair’s logic.

“It’s a bit of a shocker,” Oliver said in a telephone interview.

“He would be making a determination on whether a project should go ahead before he knows what the regulatory consequence of building the project would be.”

Oliver said under the NDP policy, “everything would be political before it’s regulatory, before it gets the regulatory review. I’ve never heard of such a backwards approach.”

Mulcair provided the example of a proposed liquefied natural gas terminal adjacent to Quebec City that he stopped when he was the provincial Liberal environment minister. Mulcair said the project was so ill-conceived that he never forwarded the proposal for an environmental assessment.

“It made no sense at all and I wasn’t going to send it,” said the New Democrat. “That was a decision taken at my level. I said, this thing’s not even going to study.”

In his speech, Mulcair said the NDP’s energy policy includes reviving the popular home retrofit program and putting a price on carbon through a cap-and-trade system.

“A New Democratic government will redirect a billion dollars a year in fossil fuel subsidies, and re-invest that money in clean energy,” he added.

And he contrasted what he called a sustainable model of developing Canada’s resources — “the motor of the Canadian economy” — with Conservative policies he said result in boom-and-bust exploitation.

Mulcair called the Conservative model “rip and ship.”

Oliver, speaking to the Vancouver Board of Trade early Wednesday, had a different take.

The natural resources minister said Canada is in a global race to secure markets for oil and gas, an opportunity the Conservative described as “perishable.”

The National Energy Board has approved three export licences for liquefied natural gas, or LNG, that clear the way for exporting 36 million tonnes of LNG a year, Oliver noted.

Those exports could begin as early as 2015, and another five west coast applications for LNG exports are under review.

Southeast Asian markets such as Japan, India, South Korea and China are looking to lock in long-term energy contracts, Oliver said in an interview, and they are looking to Canada.

“They’ve got to know that we can in fact deliver,” said the minister. “And they don’t know that yet.

“And that’s what the questions I get are about: When is this going to happen? Are you sure it’s going to happen? How can you make it happen?”