IN THE NEWS ~ Little-known federal office to oversee natural resource projects secretive, heavy-handed

Jason Fekete, CANADA.COM BLOGS; Duplicates: MONTREAL GAZETTE (EARLY), A7, 2014/01/27; VANCOUVER SUN (FINAL), A9, 2014/01/27.

OTTAWA - A little-known federal office of barely two dozen people is charged with overseeing $230 billion worth of proposed natural resource projects across Canada and helping get aboriginal groups onside, but it's facing criticism of being too heavy-handed and secretive.

The Major Projects Management Office is responsible for overarching management of federal environmental and regulatory reviews of what are currently 76 projects representing approximately $231 billion in potential new resource development investment across Canada.

The MPMO also organizes Ottawa's broader consultation with Aboriginal Peoples on these major projects, including the Northern Gateway oilsands pipeline that has been conditionally approved by a National Energy Board panel and is currently under review by the Conservative government.

Yet, this small but critically important office - it has approximately 25 staff - continues to function with a very low profile within Natural Resources Canada. The official Opposition NDP says the MPMO, like the Prime Minister's Office, is too secretive and is trying to force through projects without sufficient consultation.

Officials with the MPMO are currently in Vancouver co-ordinating efforts to meet with aboriginal groups in February and March for their feedback on the NEB panel's conditional approval of the Northern Gateway pipeline, which would ship oilsands crude from Alberta to the port of Kitimat, B.C.

Jim Clarke, MPMO's director general of operations, said it's critical for government to get people on the ground early to engage in regular and ongoing consultation with aboriginals.

He acknowledges, however, there remain challenges in getting some aboriginal groups on board with major resource projects like Northern Gateway.

"It's a difficult situation because some (aboriginal) groups will be interested in development and others may not be," Clarke said in an interview from Vancouver.

"The bottom line from the government perspective is to make best efforts for meaningful engagement and consultation, fulfil our duty to consult and accommodate."

Nearly every major energy and mining project on the books falls within the MPMO's regulatory and review purview, including the contentious Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline to the West Coast, the Lower Churchill hydroelectricity project in Labrador, New Prosperity gold mine project in British Columbia and the Jackpine oilsands mine expansion in Alberta.

In Saskatchewan, reviews of proposed uranium and diamond mines are being managed by the office, as are those for gold, nickel, platinum, copper and chromite mines in Northern Ontario and potential metals, rare earths and other projects in Quebec.

The MPMO's mandate - in collaboration with around a dozen federal departments and agencies - is to streamline the federal regulatory process for large resource projects to make reviews more timely and predictable, improve aboriginal consultation in environmental assessments and help referee project-related disputes and delays.

Opposition parties and many aboriginal groups, however, argue the government is watering down its environmental review process and failing to heed the concerns of those directly affected by the potential projects.

NDP natural resources critic Peter Julian, a British Columbia MP, says the concept of the MPMO and streamlining project reviews has been "a failure" because the office and government are not getting the social licence required.

Julian says the MPMO could easily stand for "mini-Prime Minister's Office" because, like the PMO, it's a secretive and small centralized group of people trying to ram through projects without appropriate consultation.

"The concept was a little bit let's have a mini-PMO, let's centralize everything, a small group of people who know what's going on and the public will just do our bidding," he said.

Over the next decade, $650 billion in potential new investment in hundreds of major resource projects is planned across Canada, with a large chunk of those developments to be managed by the MPMO.

Assembly of First Nations spokesman Don Kelly says aboriginal groups can't simply be considered another stakeholder, but that they have rights that must be respected, such as the duty to consult and accommodate, as well as land rights.

"There's a real need for a much more robust process of engagement with First Nations on these (projects)," Kelly said.

First Nations are worried that changes introduced over the past two years in omnibus budget bills could be weakening environmental safeguards for reviews of resource projects, he said.

"Certainly, it doesn't create the confidence that the existing approach is going to be adequate, let alone successful," he said.

The office supported the work of Douglas Eyford, the federal government's special representative on West Coast energy infrastructure, whose final report in late 2013 concluded there "has not been constructive dialogue" with aboriginal communities.

The MPMO was established in 2007, but with the 2012 budget, took the lead on Ottawa's controversial "responsible resource development" plan that streamlines environmental reviews.

In a move to "one project, one review," the Conservative government is eliminating environmental assessments for small projects and handing more regulatory responsibility to the provinces to avoid duplication.

"I can understand why people would think we're all about efficiency, but we're not," Clarke added.

"It's about efficiency and effectiveness and enhancing aboriginal consultation. We put an equal emphasis on all of those."

The MPMO is largely responsible for projects south of the 60th parallel (a separate Northern Projects Management Office holds a similar mandate for developments in Northern Canada).

Briefing notes prepared last July for Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, and obtained by Postmedia News under access to information legislation, said that 64 of the 65 resource projects under review at that time by the MPMO and the northern office involved aboriginal rights of interest.

"A critical mass of support and participation of aboriginal people in natural resource projects is essential for West Coast oil pipeline projects to succeed," say the briefing notes.

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The Major Projects Management Office is currently overseeing 76 planned projects representing approximately $231 billion in capital investment and more than 100,000 jobs.

- Approximately 55 per cent of MPMO projects are located in western provinces, with 45 per cent located in eastern provinces.

- Currently, western provinces account for 75 per cent of planned capital investment and eastern provinces 25 per cent, largely due to high costs for oil and gas projects, which have an average investment of $16.1 billion per project.

- Roughly $83.2 billion (36 per cent) of the projected capital investment for major resource projects is in B.C., followed by Alberta at $74.2 billion, Ontario at $24.4 billion and Newfoundland and Labrador at $21.2 billion.

- The mining sector accounts for 69 per cent of all MPMO proposals in Canada (53 of 76 proposed projects), totalling $47.2 billion worth of investment.

- The energy sector accounts for the other 31 per cent of MPMO projects, but 78 per cent - or nearly $184 billion - of the overall projected investment.

Source: Major Projects Management Office

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