OTTAWA - The Harper government has named a former oil and gas industry executive who led a company active in the Alberta oilsands as a representative on a U.S.-Canada working group on clean energy.
Charlie Fischer, who until recently served as president and chief executive officer of Calgary-based Nexen Inc., will head up one of three working groups with American counterparts as part of the Clean Energy Dialogue, Environment Minister Jim Prentice has confirmed.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper agreed to set up the working groups after a meeting in Ottawa with U.S. President Barack Obama, promising that the two countries would cooperate on developing new ways to combat climate change.
But only last week, in a response to a question in the House of Commons from a Liberal MP, did the government reveal who would serve as Canadian "envoys" on the groups.
The Sierra Club of Canada says the choice of an oil industry executive as a clean energy envoy undermines the credibility of the effort.
"Appointing Charlie Fischer sends a clear signal that this is about promoting the tar sands, period," said Stephen Hazell, executive director of the environmental group.
"The government of Canada seems to be coming at this whole clean energy dialogue from the perspective of how can they get special exemptions for the tar sands industry so that, when a cap-and-trade system is implemented, the tar sands aren't affected."
Hazell allowed that Nexen is among the more progressive of oilsands developers and he said that Fischer himself is "not a Neanderthal.... It is a company that recognizes it can't go on doing what it's doing."
Fischer, 59, is also listed as a co-chair of Alberta Climate Change Central, a not-for-profit organization that promotes greenhouse gas reduction.
Last December, Nexen upped its participation in the Alberta oilsands with a $735-million investment in the Long Lake project. Fischer retired from the top job at the company at the end of last year. As of December, Fischer held over 500,000 common shares in Nexen, then worth about $9.5 million, as well as options on three million more shares, according to insider disclosure records. (Because he is no longer required to report his trades, his holdings may have changed since then.)
While the exact mandates of working groups are still being developed, Environment Canada says that none of the participants will be put in a position of a conflict-of-interest.
"Every step will be taken to ensure the integrity of the working groups are maintained," a department spokesperson said in an e-mail.
Fischer will be the co-leader of the working group on clean energy technology, such as carbon capture and sequestration at coal-fire plants, according to the department.
Each group will have two co-leaders, with one drawn from senior levels of the bureaucracy and the other from outside government. They will consult with academics, the public and environmental non-governmental organizations.
Also named as envoy is Jacques Lamarre, the chief executive of SNC-Lavalin, who will co-lead a group focussed on improving the electricity grid. Lamarre is due to retire from his job at the company in May. Linda Hasenfratz, chief executive officer of Ontario auto parts company Linamar, will also lead a working group, looking at biofuels and clean engines.
At a press conference after his meeting with Obama in February, Harper said senior officials from both countries would "collaborate on the development of clean energy, science and technologies..... (to) reduce greenhouse gases and combat climate change."
All three named envoys have been registered to lobby the federal government in the past. Fischer's registration, which was terminated in December, lists communications in 2008 between his company and Prentice and Clerk of the Privy Council Kevin Lynch.
Lamarre is still on-record as a lobbyist, listing contact between his company and several senior government officials, including Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt.