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Canada's resource project reviews risk lost investment opportunities: Oliver

Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Dec. 8, 2011.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Canada risks losing investment opportunities because companies are waiting years for the federal government to review natural resource projects that get far speedier approval in other countries, Natural Resource Minister Joe Oliver told a Toronto audience Friday.

In a strong endorsement of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's pledge this week to speed up approvals for major mining and energy projects, Mr. Oliver listed examples of proposals that have been waiting years for regulatory approvals, noting the Mackenzie gas pipeline project underwent reviews for nine years, while French uranium company Areva has so far spent six years seeking approval for its Midwest uranium mine in Saskatchewan.

"Our current system remains a patchwork of overlap, duplication and nonsensical complexity," Mr. Oliver said in a speech to the Economic Club in Toronto.

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The Conservative government unveiled a pledge this week to create a predictable approval system for resources projects with a clearly defined timeline, arguing Canada is losing investment opportunities from global companies because the regulatory process is too slow and outdated.

Mr. Oliver said Australia recently approved a major uranium mine expansion in less than two years, while similar projects in Canada have taken twice as long.

"I don't think that we can afford to give our competitors in Australia that kind of head start," Mr. Oliver said.

In comments to reporters after his speech, he said he is not in a position yet to commit to a specific time limit for reviews, saying a target will be developed after consultation with the raft of government departments currently involved in the approval process, including Environment, Fisheries, Aboriginal Affairs and Treasury Board.

In his speech, Mr. Oliver said he fears two new mining projects being proposed for the remote James Bay region – the Cliffs chromite mine project and the Noront Eagle's Nest base metals mining project – could be affected by the cumbersome review process.

There are also "thousands" of smaller projects caught up in the regulatory approval process for a year, begging the question why they are even being reviewed in the first place, he said. Examples include the installation of solar panels, dock repairs and the approval of a temporary pond hockey rink on Lake Louise, he said.

"We have to wonder how many would-be investors have seen Canada's regulatory process and decided to put their money elsewhere – somewhere their money could go to work a little faster," he said.

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Mr. Oliver made his remarks as protesters marched outside the Toronto hotel where he spoke, carrying signs criticizing TransCanada Corp.'s proposed Keystone XL pipeline project in the United States.

While he did not refer to the protest directly, Mr. Oliver indirectly addressed the marchers by commenting that special interest groups should not be allowed to stall economically important developments by hijacking the regulatory approval process.

"Right now, we see a process that is open to abuse by those who oppose economic development on purely ideological grounds," he said. "We need a process that won't be subverted, but can be relied upon to produce practical and environmentally sound results."

Asked by reporters if projects would become "rubber stamped" under a streamlined review process, Mr. Oliver said there would still be ample room for input by environmental groups, aboriginal communities or other affected parties.

He said his complaint is with groups that are not "mainstream" and don't want to see any hydrocarbon projects developed on ideological grounds.

"There are people who believe the oil sands ... are going to destroy the planet. That's an extreme point of view and it has no basis in science."

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Real Estate Reporter

Janet McFarland is the real estate reporter for The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business, with a focus on residential real estate trends. She joined Report on Business in 1995, and has specialized in reporting on corporate governance, executive compensation, pension policy, business law, securities regulation and enforcement of white-collar crime. More

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