VANCOUVER - Oil, gas and other natural resource companies must help "shoulder the burden" of addressing British Columbians' concerns around controversial projects like pipelines, says the federal minister responsible for natural resources.
Joe Oliver pressed a room of business people in Vancouver on Wednesday to recognize their companies must play a key role in convincing the public their projects are advantageous not just to them, but to everyone.
He said future development of resources relies on public confidence, so business must make its case using messaging that is believable.
"We've got to appeal on an emotive level," he told the Business Council of B.C. luncheon. "We have to communicate that we care, that we're doing something about it, and that the benefits to British Columbians from development are going to be extremely important, right across the province and for individual homes."
"We can't do it alone."
Oliver's remarks came just ahead of an announcement by the province that it has crafted its own plan for developing a response to on-land oil spills.
Both discussions come amidst ongoing public protests and condemnation from aboriginal groups about the proposed construction of Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline from Alberta to a northwestern B.C. port, and the expansion of a Kinder Morgan pipeline through Vancouver. They argue the environmental risks of a spill outweigh any economic benefits.
The negative public perception has spread beyond provincial and national borders. A blog posting on the U.K.-based The Guardian website calls the transformation of Canada from holding liberal, outward-looking values to "a thuggish petro-state," one of the "biggest political shocks of the past decade."
Last month, an Enbridge vice-president also acknowledged the company can do better — and is embarking on a campaign — to improve perception of Northern Gateway in Vancouver and its surrounding urban area.
"This is a democracy and everyone has a right to express their views in the public square," Oliver told reporters when later asked if the vocal outcry from environmental advocates is holding Ottawa back from its economic objectives.
"I would be happier if the views expressed were factually based, and sometimes they're not. And so it's important for us to get the facts out."
He cited one scientific study to dispel the notion that diluted bitumen flowing through a pipeline is more corrosive than crude oil.
He also listed several previously announced initiatives being undertaken to ensure environmental protection is world class, including increasing the number of annual oil and gas pipeline inspections by 50 per cent and doubling the number of annual audits.
He told his audience Canadians expect nothing less than that environmental protection be built into their practices, noting that is an on-going effort as technology evolves.
He said the government is also investing millions in the training of First Nations people with skills to work in natural resources jobs, which it hopes will help bring aboriginals on board with such projects.
The minister did not make mention in his speech of any role the B.C. provincial government might play. The province has issued five pre-conditions that must be met before politicians will consider supporting new pipelines.
Shortly after Oliver's talk, B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake responded to the comments while outlining the province's own plans for potential on-land oil spills.
Lake challenged the federal minister's claim that public perception is the problem, rather than environmental standards. There are gaps in the system related to response time should a disaster occur, he said.
"It's a continuous improvement program that we're on," he said. "You'll never get to the perfect place, but we continue to strive. And as people set the bar higher, we're going to try to continue to meet it and review and improve as we go."
Brenda Kenny, president and CEO of the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, joined Lake at his news conference. She agreed the industry can do more to curry public favour.
"We need to be more transparent," she said. "Is (the industry) perfect? No. And our goal is zero incidents."
She invited members of the public to ask the industry the hardest questions they could think of, to stay informed and to look at the facts.
"Try to ask questions that are going to matter to your families," she added.
Response to oil spills in the ocean falls to the federal government, while incidents that might occur on land are the responsibility of the province.
To that end, Lake laid out for the first time Wednesday his government's strategy for pipeline safety.
The policy paper with details is being released just weeks before the government attends the joint-review panel hearing in Prince Rupert.
Lake and B.C. Energy Minister Rich Coleman will hold consultations with the oil and gas industry beginning in January on the issue. He said they will discuss topics like minimum response times, requirements for equipment and personnel training, wildlife response, temporary- and final-waste management, cleanup expectations and impact assessment.
Lake said the government will also reach out to First Nations, local governments and environmentalists through a web-based consultation process. That process will wrap up Feb. 15, and the government will then hold a prevention-and-response symposium by March's end in Vancouver.
Enbridge vice-president Janet Holder said in a statement the company will review the province's paper in detail. She listed several specific measures it's taking to ensure the $6 billion pipeline will be the "best-built" in North America, and said the company will have its own full response plan for any potential incident.
Lake said the provincial government will also press the federal government to develop world-leading response plans for spills along the coast.
"This isn't about pushing any pipeline through," he said. "This is about the movement of hazardous goods through British Columbia.
"So if you've got oil being moved on tanker cars, rail cars, they could have an accident and we need to have a proper response to ensure that cleanup is through and complete and timely."
He also said the province is contemplating implementing a "polluter-pay" system that would shift the costs of spills from taxpayers to the industry.