OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Environment Minister Jim Prentice announced his resignation on Thursday, saying he will leave the high-profile government post for a senior position at Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.
Prentice said the time had come for him to leave public service, but he has been frequently mentioned as a possible contender for the Conservative Party leadership should Prime Minister Steven Harper decide to step aside.
"When I entered federal politics in 2001 I made a commitment that my time in politics would be eight to 10 years. It has now, remarkably, been nine years," he told the House of Commons in a surprise announcement.
"It is time for me to pursue new opportunities outside of public life," said Prentice, a lawyer from Calgary, Alberta, who will resign as environment minister immediately and leave Parliament by the end of the year.
Government House Leader John Baird will serve on an acting basis as environment minister, a position he has held in the past, and Prentice's resignation will not require a cabinet shuffle, the prime minister's office said.
The environment job of is one of the toughest in the minority Conservative government, which critics regularly attack for not caring enough about the environment or global warming, in a bid to protect economic interests such as Alberta's oil sands.
Prentice's resignation also comes after this week's Republican victories in U.S. midterm elections, which will likely stall any efforts by the White House to push through tighter climate change legislation.
The Conservative government has said any national action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions would have to be tied to reductions in the United States, which is Canada's largest trading partner by far.
Prentice drew mixed reviews from green groups.
The Pembina Institute said that he made significant progress on issues such as expanding national parks and reducing toxins in the environment. However, while it appeared he personally wanted to address the issue of climate change, he failed to get the government tackle the issue, it said.
"We've had three Conservative ministers of the environment in the past five years and all of them have done a good job of promoting Prime Minister Harper's reckless and irresponsible approach to climate change," said Graham Saul of the Climate Action Network.
Prentice surprised many observers when he announced on Thursday the government would block Taseko Mine Ltd's controversial Prosperity copper-gold mine in British Columbia.
The opposition New Democrats said they were concerned that Prentice's move showed the Conservatives have too close a relationship with banks and big business. Prentice said he had cleared his decision with ethics officials.
CIBC said Prentice will join the bank as vice-chairman and a member of its senior executive team, dealing with public policy issues and expanding the bank's dealings with corporate clients, effective Jan 1.
"Jim Prentice is a proven leader with strong relationships in the corporate sector and immense public policy expertise," Gerry McCaughey, chief executive of CIBC, said in a statement.
Prentice's surprise departure comes just four months after House Leader Jay Hill announced he was leaving the Conservative government to return to the private sector.
Reporting by David Ljunggren, writing Allan Dowd; editing by Rob Wilson