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OTTAWA— The Harper government is putting new muscle to its ambitious natural resource strategy, clearing away regulatory hurdles to drive Canada’s energy and mineral development and expand exports to Asia.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s budget Thursday included an announcement that the government is speeding up environmental reviews of major resource projects, including the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline that will bring oil sands bitumen to Kitimat, B.C., for export to Asia.
Ottawa is also stepping up its battle with oil industry opponents by ordering the Canada Revenue Agency to increase monitoring of environmental charities that engage in political advocacy, a move critics say is an attempt to cow activists into silence.
Mr. Flaherty said the government was responding to complaints that environmental groups may be abusing their charitable status, in part by accepting foreign donations for campaigns that oppose pipeline construction and oil sands development.
Ottawa is particularly concerned about expanding oil and gas exports to Asia, and has expressed frustration with the lengthy hearing being conducted by a review panel into the Northern Gateway proposal. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has promoted Canada’s energy potential as an energy superpower and courted Asian investment in resource development and export facilities.
Mr. Harper invested a new urgency in the need for export capacity to Asia after the U.S. put on hold TransCanada Corp.’s plan to build the Keystone XL pipeline to provide oil sands producers access to the U.S. Gulf Coast refining hub.
The government estimates there are more than 500 projects, representing $500-billion in investment, planned over the next decade. But in the budget plan, the government said corporations that want to invest are facing an “increasingly complex web of rules and bureaucratic reviews that have grown over time.”
The budget laid out new time limits for such reviews, saying panel hearings should take no more than 24 months. Federal officials say the current Gateway review has been under consideration for 50 months and isn’t scheduled to conclude until the fall of 2013. However, the company only made its formal filing in May, 2010.
Mr. Flaherty confirmed the new time lines would apply to Gateway, though neither he nor officials offered details on how the process will be shortened.
The prospect of streamlining environmental reviews was welcomed by the oil and mining sectors, particularly Enbridge Inc. which faces opposition from first nations and environmentalists over its Gateway project.
“If there’s a way that we could still have a proper process with an earlier decision, we would like to see that,” said Janet Holder, the company’s executive in charge of Northern Gateway.
She pointed to the schedule for the review panel over the next two years, which includes a number of gaps that could potentially be eliminated.
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