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Monday, January 17, 2011

Peter Kent Steps In It Over Oil Sands & It Will Stick to Him

UPDATE:  Here is another link to the Saturday Globe and Mail on "Harper's Oil Sands Muse" that supports my concern in this blog post.

Here is a very important story out of the Hill Times about Minister of the Environment Peter Kent that is worth reading and reflection.  It is about the simplistic opening comments by Peter Kent the newly minted Harper Minister of the environment.  Mr. Kent is a seasoned and competent journalist but as a politician, not so much.

It appears that the primary briefing book for Mr. Kent in his first foray on to the Harper front benches was Ezra Levant's oil sands book "Ethical Oil."  The Hill Times story says Mr. Kent was staking out his position on oil sands to align with the uber-conservative Mr. Levant before he even considered the larger picture of the challenges and opportunities inherent in the oil sands.  Don't get me wrong, Ezra's book makes a good point but one that is insufficient to justify free market unfettered development of the oil sands.  Being the best of a bad lot is not good enough. Geopolitical issues around oil production and marketing are significant to Albertans and Canadians.  But that does not absolve Albertans as owners of the oil sands from our responsibility to be concerned for the environment, social, habitat and other consequences of oil sands development beyond getting rich quickly.

I am a big fan and supporter of oil sand development but recognizes we can and must exploit this resource more responsibly and in so many ways.  I have no problem with the Minister of Environment quoting from books written on themes within his jurisdiction. Might I suggest (by way of shameless plug) that he also read Green Oil by my business partner Satya Das or Peter Silverstone's "The World's Greenest Oil" for a broader deeper understanding of the problems and positive possibilities of responsible and innovative oil sands development.  Full disclosure, I published Green Oil. I admire the initiative of super-citizenship Dr. Peter Silverstone.  He is a psychiatrist who takes time to be an active Albertan and is one person who realizes his personal responsibility as an owner of the oil sands.  By writing his book, he has shown what engaged informed citizenship really is all about and what a difference one person can make.

So why would a guy with Mr. Kent's credentials, experience and journalistic ethic be caught taking an obvious  pre-emptive political strike position in his new portfolio that is purely ideological and tactical?  Why would he be caught commenting the way he has on the oil sands before having the advantage of a full briefing on the topic?  why would he not give himself a chance to grasp the complexities and nuances of his portfolio, especially relating to oil sands?

Is this a cost of doing business that if you want to sit in the Harper Cabinet, you have to toe a line?  Is this just the most recent example that a Cabinet Minister's Job #1 in the way Harper rules is about pursuing political positioning and running roughshod over any aspiration of good governance?  Was that homage to Ezra's "Ethical Oil" the price Kent had to pay to be in Cabinet?  Was this the initiation test of his allegiance to the Prime Minister and a condition of his appointment?  Makes you wonder what other explanations there could be for such a misstep by a sophisticated experienced journalist must know a thing or two about abuse of power.

Good government is always good politics.  Pure politics is hardly ever good government.  I wonder if this kind of political push by the Prime Minister for propaganda over policy is the real reason the former Progressive Conservative Jim Prentice prematurely quit politics. We will never know but we ought not to be so naive that we don't consider that as a real possibility.  Sad isn't it!

Mr Kent first utterances has to be a serious disappointment to the oil sand industry too.  His political  and governance missteps may impact his future in the next election but so what.  Politicians are notorious for thinking short term and for personal political advantage. Industry, however, has billions of long-term dollars invested.  They are at risk over volatile prices, world-wide recessions, environmental policy uncertainty and the rise of alternative energy sources.  Uncertainty and risk management are facts of life for the oil sands industry, now and well into the future.  They also realize the depth and breadth of their struggle to justify their social license to operate in this complex social, economic, ecological and political culture.

The oil sands industry, like politicians, are charged, tried and convicted in court of public opinion.  Industry  has more at risk as I see it.  There is an allure of short-sighted expediency but they realize they have to take a more complex world view in what they do and how they do it.  Industry must take a long-term perspective to justify the large up-front investments and taking on inherent duties like reclamation.  That is a complex current responsibility but decades away from being delivered and that is even more uncertainty.  The oil sands operating culture is more complex and controversial than superficial gamesmanship artificial chaos of power politics that we see as core characteristics of too many of our so-called political "leaders."

Being cozy, co-operative and collusive with the federal and provincial governments has worked for the industry up to now but it is an obviously mistaken and insufficient industry strategy going forward.  My work with the industry tells me they get this.  They are adapting appropriately, and cautiously, to appeal directly to the citizens as owners of the oil sands as they attempt to justify their social license to operate and exploit this valuable resource for the benefit of employees, shareholders, suppliers, citizens and future generations.

My betting is behind industry to do the right thing on their social license sooner than later. Unless we change governments or our government change their political culture I despair that they will ever do the right things for the right reasons in the right way at any time soon.  Citizens have to insist that our industry tenants and our government property managers start doing a much better job of serving the greater good and not just serve their self-interests as they develop our oil sands property.  Time for Albertans as owners to raise the expectations bar on themselves too. We have to get better informed, effectively active and unshakably insistent that the oil sands development is done right. After all it is all being done in the name of Albertans and Canadians.