OTTAWA – Money earmarked to support wind energy producers was diverted to research and development in the oil patch in backroom budget wrangling, the minister of natural resources said in a conversation with an aide in January.
Lisa Raitt told aide Jasmine MacDonnell that she suspects Environment Minister Jim Prentice took the money for wind power and redirected it to his Clean Energy Plan – a $1-billion fund for research and development in the oil sands.
The revelation is likely to intensify criticism of the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper as unfriendly to the environment.
Mr. Prentice is the MP for Calgary-Centre North, home to much of Canada’s oil industry. Mr. Harper also represents a Calgary riding.
Ms. Raitt made the comment as she and Ms. MacDonnell were being driven around British Columbia on Jan. 30, a few days after the budget.
The conversation was inadvertently recorded on Ms. MacDonnell’s digital recorder and eventually came into the possession of The Chronicle Herald.
Ms. MacDonnell tells Ms. Raitt that CanWEA, the Canadian Wind Energy Association, had sent a letter to its supporters complaining about the lack of funding for wind energy in the budget.
“I’m not going to put up with the whining of CanWEA, and the reason being is that they’re not utilizing the money that is there now,” says Ms. Raitt. “And until these things don’t start getting built.”
Ms. MacDonnell appears to read from the letter from CanWEA: “We know that the proposal was actively promoted and pushed by Minister Raitt. In fact, it is our understanding that it was actually part of the budget until it was taken out very late in the process.”
Ms. Raitt responds: “No. No. I would never have told that.”
“You wouldn’t have told her,” says Ms. MacDonnell. “Is that true?”
“Yes,” says Ms. Raitt. “It is true.”
“So somebody is talking,” says Ms. MacDonnell.
“Someone in Finance talked,” says Ms. Raitt. “Am I going to get blamed for this?”
Ms. Raitt was worried about the prime minister’s reaction to the fact that CanWEA was somehow aware of budget talks, which are supposed to be kept in confidence.
“I certainly didn’t know the fact that it came out late in the process,” she said.
“I would have no way of knowing that. I understand that’s what happened. My suspicion is, what I told you, that Jim took the money for his clean energy plan. They said ‘Ah, they don’t need it.’ There should never have been any choice. No one asked my opinion on it. If they had, I would have lobbied. Maybe that’s why I’m invited to P and P (priority and planning, a cabinet committee). Oh, the prime minister’s not going to like that.”
Ms. Raitt at first blames the normally tight-lipped Finance officials for leaking the information. Later in the conversation, though, she and Ms. MacDonnell seem to agree that it may have been Natural Resources officials who let CanWEA know that the money had been there but was pulled.
“Those quotes clearly point to the fact that I’m on the team,” says Ms. Raitt. “And I am. That’s what happened. I don’t have that pull. Period.”
“Do you think someone on the EnerCan side did it?” she asks Ms. MacDonnell.
“That would probably be the most likely explanation, that they’re trying to do damage control with the different groups,” she says. “’We did it. We pushed. We brought it. It was there.’”
“’The minister brought it to Flaherty,’” says Ms. Raitt. “I didn’t push it hard at the table though.”
They go on to discuss problems with wind energy funding, with Ms. Raitt complaining that wind energy producers aren’t accessing federal funding that is already available – a subsidy based on kilowatt production.
“If they can’t finance it, and they can’t get their (environmental approvals), and they can’t buy their equipment, then it doesn’t go further and they don’t get the kilowatt cent,” she says.
“So I asked Tyler what’s the sunset? How long do people have to hold onto money? And I don’t know what the answer is yet. But there’s $862 million still waiting for this project.
“I’m upset that the ministry, that the department, told people that that was going to be oversubscribed by a certain date. That’s built this whole fear. It was a $1.5-billion announcement, started in ’07. No one would ever think the funding would run out unless they were told it would run out. So that’s my sadness.”
CanWEA complained publicly about the lack of new money in a news release after the budget.
“Our ability to compete with the United States for investment in wind energy projects and manufacturing opportunities will decline as a result of this budget,” said president Robert Hornung.
“At a time when the United States has made measures to support renewable energy deployment a key component of its plans to stimulate the U.S. economy, Canada is moving in the opposite direction.”
CanWEA had called for a $600-million fund to expand wind energy. It declined to comment when contacted Wednesday.
On May 19, Ms. Raitt announced the $1-billion fund for research and development in the oil patch at a speech at the University of Alberta, saying the money would encourage “new technologies now to help protect and preserve our environment for future generations.”
Mr. Prentice’s office refused to comment on the recording on Tuesday, and the minister’s office told reporters he would end a media question and answer session on Wednesday if anybody asked him about the recording.
Speculation about the recording has been rife since the Canadian Press reported Tuesday that Ms. Raitt mentioned Mr. Prentice on the recording, apparently because Conservative officials knew about the comments and were bracing themselves.
Ms. Raitt’s comments about the budget wrangling were made on the same five-hour recording in which Ms. Raitt called the medical isotope crisis “sexy” and criticized her cabinet colleague, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, which has led to a media storm in Ottawa.
The Chronicle Herald went to Nova Scotia Supreme Court on Monday to fight an emergency injunction that would have blocked publication of the stories that came from the recorder.
After refusing to apologize on Tuesday under opposition pressure, Ms. Raitt did tearfully apologize for her remarks in a news conference in Ottawa on Wednesday, making reference to the toll cancer has taken in her own family.