Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

Suncor Executive to take Charge of Social Problems in Fort Muck?

Oilpatch fox to watch tar sands henhouse

Oil executives shouldn't run a key government agency, even temporarily.
Dateline: Monday, August 20, 2007
by Sheila Pratt for The Edmonton Journal

Ed Stelmach took some good advice last winter and set up an oilsands secretariat to help manage the serious growth problems in Fort McMurray caused by the rapid expansion of the oilsands. Good idea, long overdue.

Too bad the government blew up the credibility of secretariat by handing over this brand new, crucial public policy group to an oilpatch executive who will continue to be paid by her company.

The government last week hired Suncor vice-president Heather Kennedy as assistant deputy minister in the treasury department. As boss of the new secretariat, she'll be figuring out how to handle housing, hospitals, schools, and infrastructure in the region for the next two years. Her work will take her into several government departments.

The worst is that the government doesn't seem to get the potential conflicts staring it in the face.

This stinks so badly it makes the toxic lakes on the oilsands mines smell like garden ponds. The worst is that the government doesn't seem to get the potential conflicts staring it in the face.

Something about the fox and the henhouse quickly comes to mind when the job of coming up with public policy to best manage growth around the oilsands is handed over to a current oilpatch executive, even temporarily.

Would you hire agriculture biotech giant Monsanto, purveyor of GM seeds, to run the agriculture department's crop improvement program? Or hire Greenpeace to run the environment department? No, the captains of industry and active lobbyists have their own agendas and it's not always the public agenda.

Kennedy, an engineer, is obviously very smart, highly competent and has a firm handle on growth issues from the boardroom's point of view.

But outside her obvious expertise in running an oilsands mining operation, does she have expertise in municipal growth and health issues and difficult social issues in the city?

After years in the boardroom and in Fort McMurray, she's confident she will find no difficulty in seeing things from the public-interest rather than the corporate point of view. "I feel very comfortable I will be representing the government very well and that the industry background I have will be good expertise for me," she told reporters.

Well, assuming she makes the switch, there is still the perception of bias that will linger in the public mind, raising uncomfortable questions about whether her decisions benefit the company she will return in two short years.

It might help if Kennedy resigned from her Suncor job and started a new career in the public service. But the government settled for this bizarre deal where Suncor continues to pay her salary and the government reimburses the company.

So who exactly does she work for?

Kennedy agreed to some vague conditions to recuse herself on decisions that raise conflict of interest issues, says the government. But who is monitoring that?

The same treasury department that sees no problem in her appointment?

Then there's the question of what happens when she leaves her government post. Kennedy will have a wealth of inside knowledge about government plans and proposals that may well affect her company and others in the oilsands. She takes all that with her....

For the whole story, please go to the related site below.

Sheila Pratt started as a rookie reporter during Alberta's first boom in the late 1970s and has been analysing and commenting on the changing political and social landscape ever since, as a writer and editor. A graduate of Queen's University, Pratt covered the provincial legislature in the Lougheed and Getty years. Her work included national and provincial television and radio commentary. Pratt is also co-author of a book Running On Empty, Alberta After the Boom (that's the first boom). In 2001, Pratt won the Southam Journalism Fellowship at the University of Toronto. She is currently an editorial writer and Sunday columnist at the Edmonton Journal.

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