Not any more

Offshore-drilling watchdogs stacked with industry-friendly appointments

In Canada on August 11, 2010 at 08:58

OTTAWA — Most of the individuals appointed by the Harper government to the agencies that oversee offshore-petroleum drilling in Canada are former industry insiders or government officials with no stated experience in environmental issues.

The Conservative approach to such appointments doesn’t mark a dramatic departure from previous Liberal governments — a review of regulatory agencies shows that their boards had a similar composition before the Tories took power four-and-a-half years ago.

But critics say the industry-friendly tilt of these agencies could be problematic under changes made by the Conservatives that hand more authority over environmental assessments to regulators, rather than review panels that often included environmental experts.

"It’ll mean that the people who are actually doing (the environmental assessments) will come from industry. Even the good people will have built-in biases in favour of industry," said John Bennett, executive director of Sierra Club Canada, an environmental advocacy group.

The massive oil spill at BP’s Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico has raised serious questions about how offshore oil projects are regulated worldwide. U.S. President Barack Obama has promised wholesale reforms at the U.S. Minerals Management Service, accusing the regulatory agency of being too "cozy" in the past with the oil industry.

Since the Conservatives took power in February 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet has made 25 appointments to the boards of the National Energy Board (NEB), which regulates offshore petroleum exploration on Canada’s Arctic and West coasts, and the two federal-provincial agencies that regulate drilling off the East Coast: the Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board and the Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board.

Recent appointments include former Nova Scotia premier and provincial Progressive Conservative party leader Rodney MacDonald, who was named to the Nova Scotia board in June. MacDonald butted heads with Harper in 2007, when the federal government proposed changes to provincial equalization policy that Nova Scotia said violated the province’s rights to offshore petroleum revenues. The two sides struck a deal that resolved the dispute later that year.

In June, the Harper cabinet also appointed David Wells, a former aide within the Conservative government, to the board of the Newfoundland offshore board. Wells was a senior policy adviser to former federal fisheries minister Loyola Hearn.

Other appointees boast a wealth of experience in the offshore industry.

Max Ruelokke, appointed as chair and CEO of the Newfoundland board in October 2006, is an engineer who formerly served as deputy industry minister in the provincial government and as general manager of the U.K.-based engineering firm AMEC’s East Coast Canadian unit.

Brian Lewis, appointed to the Nova Scotia board this June, has worked in the offshore industry for more than a quarter century with various companies, including divisions of J.D. Irving.

Lynn Mercier, named to the NEB in November 2008, worked at Quebec natural-gas distributor Gaz Metro for nearly 30 years, serving as director of the gas-supply division.

The appointee with the most extensive experience in environmental issues appears to be Sheila Leggett, the NEB’s vice-chair. Leggett, who was named a full-time member in July 2006, was previously on the board of an agency that conducts hearings into natural-resource development projects in Alberta. She was also vice-president of an environmental consulting firm.

A spokesman for Natural Resources Minister Christian Paradis said the government is committed to "only appointing people who are qualified."

"Our appointment process is open, transparent and competency-based," spokesman Richard Walker said in an email. "We will continue to appoint persons based on merit."

In the last session, Parliament passed legislation that makes a number of changes to how environmental assessments are conducted, including putting the National Energy Board in charge of assessing energy projects within its jurisdiction. Previously, such projects would normally be assessed by a joint review panel appointed by the federal environment minister.

Such panels typically included at least one academic expert in environmental issues, in addition to representatives from industry, said Sierra Club’s Bennett. "By going through the joint-review panels, you usually did have more diverse appointments."

The environmental-assessment changes were included in the government’s budget-implementation bill, forcing the opposition parties to either support the changes or defeat the government.

© Copyright (c) Postmedia News


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