Published: October 26, 2021
CALGARY — A former activist is the new environment minister in Canada and the oil and gas industry is extremely concerned.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau picked Steven Guilbeault, a former Greenpeace activist and founder of the Quebec environmental group Équiterre, to be the country’s next environment minister Tuesday in a move that oil patch insiders say is disappointing and concerning.
Guilbeault, who was previously heritage minister, succeeds Jonathan Wilkinson at Environment and Climate Change Canada. Wilkinson is the country’s new Natural Resources Minister.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said Guilbeault’s appointment sent a “very problematic” signal to the province, which is the largest oil-and-gas-producing region in the country.
“I certainly hope that the new minister, Minister Guilbeault, will quickly demonstrate to Alberta and other resource producing provinces a desire to work together constructively on practical solutions that don’t end up killing hundreds of thousands of jobs, but his own personal background and track record on these issues suggests somebody who is more of an absolutist than a pragmatist,” Kenney said. “I hope that I’m wrong about that.”
One energy executive, who declined to speak on the record, said they would wait to see the mandate letters for Guilbeault and Wilkinson before they make any conclusions but they are concerned that Guilbeault will now have the power to start and stop major project reviews under the Impact Assessment Act.
There are also concerns about Guilbeault’s hostile history to oil and gas extraction. He vehemently opposed the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion from Alberta to B.C. and has previously been arrested for protesting oil and gas infrastructure.
“This will be very concerning and frustrating for everyone who’s part of the natural resource economy in Canada,” said Heather Exner-Pirot, a fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, adding that a former Greenpeace activist “will have significant influence on how we go forward with our resource development.”
La Presse newspaper once dubbed Guilbeault “the green Jesus of Montreal.”
“The background is concerning,” said Jeremy McCrea, who covers Canadian oil and gas stocks for Raymond James.
“It’s the perception that that’s the kind of person that will have more of a voice in the Trudeau cabinet,” he said, adding it could add to the “political headwinds for an investor that’s worried about the political landscape here.”
This will be very concerning and frustrating for everyone who’s part of the natural resource economy in Canada
Guilbeault scaled the CN Tower in Toronto in 2001 while working with Greenpeace to unfurl a banner that called Canada and former U.S. president George Bush “climate killers.”
“After 30 years of fighting climate change outside of government, I am humbled and I am honoured to be given the opportunity to accelerate our fight against climate change as Canada’s new Minister of Environment and Climate Change,” Guilbeault said in a social media post Tuesday.
Greenpeace applauded both Guilbeault’s appointment and Wilkinson’s shift to the natural resources portfolio on Tuesday.
“Minister Guilbeault knows the file, he knows the key players and he understands just how much is at stake,” Keith Stewart, senior energy strategist at Greenpeace Canada, said in a statement. “He’s also a practical person who knows the rules, which is important because implementing and raising the Liberal government’s climate commitments is going to take the whole government pulling hard in the same direction.”
Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt expected “heads exploding” in both the Calgary oil patch and in the Alberta Legislature on Tuesday.
“They’ve just flown a huge red flag in front of the Kenney government and some elements of the oil patch,” Bratt said.
Bratt said the appointment comes immediately before the global COP26 climate conference in Glasgow begins this weekend and is likely intended to signal Canada’s commitment to reducing emissions. “They’re walking in with tougher targets and a stronger commitment to climate change,” he said.
The Calgary oil patch has made the case in previous years that emissions can be reduced without cuts to crude oil production, which is a case the industry and the provincial government will need to make again to the incoming environmental minister.
“The question is sometimes framed as to whether or not we should have a fossil (fuel) free future. That is the wrong question, the correct question is whether we should have an emissions free future,” said Gary Mar, president and CEO of the Canada West Foundation. “Energy is good, it’s the emissions that are bad.”