By Randall Palmer
OTTAWA, March 19 (Reuters) - When Greg Rickford, Canada's new natural resources minister, became the first Conservative ever to be elected to Parliament from northern Ontario's Kenora district, reports said he began his victory speech: "Mission impossible - accomplished."
Rickford now faces another daunting challenge: winning support for the controversial Keystone XL and Northern Gateway oil pipelines that have galvanized the environmental movement in opposition.
To the job, he brings expertise in dealing with aboriginal communities, referred to in Canada as First Nations, which may prove helpful in winning support for the pipelines.
The Conservative government says the lines are needed to get landlocked crude from northern Alberta's oil sands to international markets.
Rickford, 46, took over the natural resources portfolio from Joe Oliver on Wednesday. Prime Minister Stephen Harper named Oliver to replace veteran Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, who resigned on Tuesday.
Elected in 2008, Rickford became parliamentary secretary to the minister of Indian and northern affairs in 2011. In 2013, he became a junior minister, or minister of state, for science, and for development in northern Ontario, notably for the largely untouched but mineral-rich Ring of Fire region.
His most high-profile assignment in his new job, as was Oliver's, will be to encourage the U.S. administration to approve TransCanada Corp's Keystone XL line, which would move Alberta oil sands crude to the U.S. Gulf Coast.
The project has become a lightning rod for environmentalists, who warn Keystone could hasten climate change and who want President Barack Obama to block it.
TransCanada spokesman James Millar said he expected Rickford to follow Oliver's path and focus on highlighting the economic benefits of the projects both in Canada and the United States.
Jack Mintz, who heads the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary and is a director of Exxon Mobil affiliate Imperial Oil, said he expects Rickford's biggest challenge will be in "how he represents himself to the U.S. press and the U.S. politicians in trying to articulate the best case for Canada."
HAS DEFENDED PIPELINES
On two separate occasions last October in the daily Question Period in the House of Commons, Rickford attacked the New Democratic Party for its opposition to Keystone XL and highlighted the contributions the pipeline would make to the economy.
"They should quit fooling themselves and their constituents and support the Keystone pipeline and responsible resource development for the sake of jobs in the steel industry," Rickford said.
In 2012, Rickford also defended the government's behavior in relation to Enbridge Inc's proposed Northern Gateway pipeline to the Pacific Coast, which would allow oil sands crude to be shipped to Asian markets.
"The Crown (government) has a legal obligation to carry out consultations and to provide assistance if a project could potentially compromise ancestral treaty rights. That is exactly what we are doing," he told the House.
"We take our obligation to consult very seriously."
He will have to decide by mid-June on whether to give final approval to Northern Gateway. The pipeline won preliminary regulatory approval on Dec. 19 but the minister of natural resources has 180 days to decide on whether to approve it, and one of the key tasks during that time is to talk with aboriginal groups.
Art Sterritt, executive director of Coastal First Nations, an alliance of aboriginal groups in the Pacific Coast province of British Columbia, said he hoped the new minister would work to develop better ties.
"If you want to build a project in B.C., you better come in a build a relationship first, instead of trying to jam us with it, because you're not going to be able to roll over us," he told Reuters.
"I think Ottawa understands that better now than they ever did, so perhaps this new minister will get that lesson sooner rather than later."
But he cautioned that Rickford's experience with native groups in northern Ontario might not translate automatically in British Columbia.
"Hopefully this new minister takes it upon himself to come out and be enlightened by First Nations in B.C. about what it takes to develop projects, and also to recognize that there are some projects that are just not going to happen, like Northern Gateway," he said.
Enbridge, recognizing the political challenges it faces, tapped banker and former Indian affairs minister Jim Prentice this month to lead negotiations with aboriginal groups opposed to Northern Gateway.
David Collyer, president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said it was a critical time for the natural resources sector and Rickford would need to get up to speed quickly on a number of files.
He added that Rickford's previous experience in government is "relevant to the ongoing success of the oil and gas industry".
Rickford is fluent in both English and French, having earned an MBA from Quebec's French-language Laval University. He also holds three separate degrees in nursing and civil and common law.
(Additional reporting by Julie Gordon in Vancouver, Scott Haggett in Calgary and Euan Rocha in Toronto; Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson; and Peter Galloway)