BUSINESS

Catherine McKenna, New Climate Change Minister, Has Some In Oil Biz Freaking Out

11/05/2015 02:30 EST | Updated 11/05/2015 06:59 EST

First, they were hit by an oil price collapse. Then Alberta elected an NDP government. Now, Canada’s oil industry is wrapping its head around the arrival of a “climate change minister” in the federal cabinet.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday appointed rookie Ottawa MP and international trade lawyer Catherine McKenna to head the newly named Ministry of Environment and Climate Change.

The symbolism of that had some in the oil patch worried about the extent to which the new government will support the oil and gas industry, which has been struggling with depressed prices that have put major projects on hold. The sector has lost more than 11 per cent of its jobs in the past year.

“I don’t think it’s panic-button stuff, but if you are looking to dig just below the surface … the cabinet committee would be very environment friendly rather than resource friendly,” an unnamed Calgary energy industry insider told the Financial Post.

For others, it is panic-button stuff.

“You’re really attacking the energy industry,” Murray Mullen, of oilfield services company Mullen Group, told the Globe and Mail. “That’s what climate change is all about.… It is all about attacking carbon.”

Oil execs' concerns likely won't be assuaged by the news that McKenna has hired Marlo Raynolds as her chief of staff. Raynolds, who ran unsuccessfully as a Liberal candidate in Alberta in last month's election, is a former executive director of the Pembina Institute, a think tank that advocates the elimination of fossil fuels.

But while some in the business prepare to circle the wagons, others are taking a more open approach. The continuing delays to the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline in the U.S. have convinced some in the industry that expanding Canada’s oilsands will mean convincing the world the industry is acting responsibly on climate change.

To that end, some oil patch companies have thrown their weight behind a carbon tax — including Suncor, the largest player in the oilsands.

"We're trying to move Canada toward a position of leadership" on the climate issue, Suncor CEO Steve Williams told a climate conference earlier this year. "That's not how we're viewed around the world at the moment. We're viewed to be quite the opposite."

Not surprisingly, climate change activists largely welcomed the new ministerial title.

“Including climate change in the environment minister’s title signals how high a priority this issue is to our new federal government,” Clean Energy Canada executive director Merran Smith told DeSmog Blog.

Pembina Institute head Ed Whittingham said that while McKenna doesn’t have much of a background in climate issues, her experience working with NGOs is a positive.

“It indicates a more engaging, communicative, collaborative approach, reading the tea leaves right now,” he said.

And the oil industry seems to be more receptive to Trudeau’s choice for natural resources minister: Winnipeg MP Jim Carr, who is widely seen as being pro-business — though perhaps not to the extent of being a cheerleader for the industry.

Carr “is fundamentally a bridge-builder,” Canada West Foundation head Dylan Jones told the Globe.

“He did a spectacular job of connecting aboriginal people and unions and civil society and government when he was the president of the Manitoba Business Council.… That’s as much what the energy sector in Alberta needs as just someone who is a fearless champion.”

McKenna's first test will be next month, when she heads to Paris for COP21, a climate change conference being billed as one of the most significant ones yet.

Some climate activists criticized Trudeau's Liberals for not committing to emissions reduction targets as part of their election platform. Trudeau has said he wants to consult with the provinces before setting any concrete targets.

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