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MARK VAUGHAN-JACKSON: O’Regan’s speech to Noia sinks like a stone

Newfoundland and Labrador’s federal cabinet representative speaks via video from Ottawa to delegates at the Newfoundland and Labrador Oil and Gas Industries Association’s conference in St. John’s Thursday morning. — Image from video
Newfoundland and Labrador’s federal cabinet representative speaks via video from Ottawa to delegates at the Newfoundland and Labrador Oil and Gas Industries Association’s conference in St. John’s Thursday morning. — Image from video - Contributed

It’s probably just as well Seamus O’Regan delivered his annual address to the provincial oil and gas conference via video.

Because, frankly, his comments went over like a lead balloon.

O’Regan — minister of Indigenous Services and this province’s representative in the federal cabinet — was due to speak in person Wednesday morning at the Newfoundland and Labrador Oil and Gas Industries Association’s (Noia) annual conference in St. John’s.

But with the House of Commons in its last days of sitting this week, he stayed in Ottawa and addressed delegates via video.

After a brief mention of the Trans-Mountain pipeline expansion getting the go-ahead Tuesday (“It’s a big day for Canada’s oil and gas industry. It’s a big day for Canadian jobs," he said), O’Regan launched into a passionate defence of Bill C-69, an overhaul of Canada’s environmental assessment legislation.

Sent back to the Senate for final approval, the bill could pass by the end of the week.

Not everyone likes it.

Environmental groups argue it doesn’t offer enough protections.

Noia and other groups in the natural resource sector says it will slow project assessments further, dissuade investment in exploration and development, and diminish provincial involvement in the process.

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball says it potentially undermines the principles of joint management of offshore resources enshrined within the Atlantic Accord.

The federal government thinks it’s excellent.

O’Regan contends Bill C-69 fixes a broken system: “Noia members will be the first to tell you that the current environmental assessment process brought in by the (Stephen) Harper Conservatives doesn’t work — never worked,” O’Regan said. “The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) 2012 doesn’t have the flexibility needed to harmonize the work between the federal and provincial governments. It results in duplication, red tape and sometimes lengthy and costly delays.”

O’Regan then addressed some of the concerns raised about C-69.

He argued Bill C-69 actually increases the role the province and the C-NLOPB and will put C-NLOPB members on review panels, something not happening now.

“The bill also spells out clear and transparent timelines for the review process. It will give you and your companies the certainty that you need to secure investments and to move projects forward,” he said.

"We all agree that the future of our offshore oil and gas industry should be above partisan politics because the stakes are too high to let the agendas of those beyond our shores get in our way.” — Seamus O'Regan

He countered the argument that it undermines the Atlantic Accord’s principles of joint management over offshore resources.

“As the province’s federal representative in cabinet, I led our government’s efforts at the table at the latest round of Atlantic Accord negotiations,” he said. “So, I must respectfully and fundamentally disagree that Bill C-69 detracts from the spirit or benefits of the Atlantic Accord. Simply put, I would never allow that to happen.”

O’Regan concluded with a swipe at those who oppose C-69 based on partisan politics.

“I have to admit I’ve been disappointed to hear some of the partisan rhetoric coming out of this room, because I know that we’ve done some great work together these past four years. We all agree that the future of our offshore oil and gas industry should be above partisan politics because the stakes are too high to let the agendas of those beyond our shores get in our way.”

He concluded with a partisan swipe of his own, saying “Bill C-69 fixes Harper’s mess and it provides the right balance between protecting the environment and protecting this vital industry.”

The video was met with a complete lack of applause.

Afterwards, Paul Barnes, Atlantic and Arctic director for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, says he was disappointed with O’Regan’s speech.

“Our main concern is really around the timelines. This bill is creating longer timelines for us with respect to getting approvals for offshore projects, longer than the previous piece of legislation that’s in place,” he said.

“We certainly appreciate the minister taking the time to do a video for our conference,” Noia CEO Charlene Johnson said. “He believes that there’s more clarity and more certainty. I can tell you from the people that I spoke to in this room, they don’t feel that that’s the case.”

“He believes that there’s more clarity and more certainty. I can tell you from the people that I spoke to in this room, they don’t feel that that’s the case.” — Charlene Johnson

Noia and others have been advocating for changes to C-69 for months and Johnson said there was nothing in O’Regan’s speech to assuage their concerns.

“We did a conference call with four of the Newfoundland and Labrador MPs, a last push effort. At the end of the call they said, ‘What are the top three things that you’re looking for?’ So I said joint management, exploration wells off the designated project list, and we want clearly defined hard caps for timelines. If it’s 1,000 days, tell us it’s 1,000 days, if it’s 300 days tell us that. At least investors can make the decision. Right now, the way this is written, this could go on and on and on and on forever and, at the end of the day, ‘Sorry, we’re not going to let the project proceed.’

“You can never stop advocating. I was in government, I’ve seen changes made to bills at the 11th hour. So, we’re continuing to do that,” she said. “I know the whole country has an issue with this, so I know we all can’t be wrong.

So, to recap: you’ve got the federal Liberals saying this law will be good for the natural resource sector and environmental protection.

You have the offshore sector and environmental groups saying it won’t.

You have a Liberal premier — one of few remaining — saying he’ll do whatever it takes to ensure his province retains true joint management in its own offshore, be it through arbitration via the Atlantic Accord or even the courts.

And you have a federal government that, as one of its final acts before the House closes and politicians hit the barbecue circuit and the campaign trail, seems hell bent on passing a law that no one else seems to like.

Interesting campaign tactic.

Mark Vaughan-Jackson is The Telegram’s business editor. He can be reached via email at mark.vaughan-jackson@thetelegram.com.


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