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A tailings pond, a dam and dyke system used in oil sands processing, near Fort McMurray, Alta. on Aug. 28, 2015.IAN WILLMS/The New York Times

Working with Ottawa on a long-term plan for cleaning up Alberta’s toxic oil sands tailings ponds will be a top priority for Rebecca Schulz, as she balances the sometimes conflicting needs of protecting the province’s environment and its energy sector in her new role as Minister of Environment and Protected Areas.

Ms. Schulz was among a handful of Alberta cabinet ministers who received their mandates from Premier Danielle Smith on Monday, a month after the United Conservative Party clinched their second election victory. The new Minister of Energy and Minerals, Brian Jean, also received his orders from Ms. Smith.

The UCP government has long extolled the economic importance and value of the province’s fossil fuel sector, and Ms. Smith’s mandate letters to the new environment and energy ministers make it clear the industry remains a priority.

Indeed, the bulk of instructions to Ms. Schulz from the Premier’s pen comprise energy issues.

Ms. Schulz will be tasked with developing a plan to improve the current process for certifying the cleanup of old oil and gas wells, establishing new protocols to develop and trade carbon credits, and implementing a regulatory framework for small modular reactor technology use in Alberta.

But the Premier also acknowledged the need to lower emissions in the province’s key sector.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Ms. Schulz said a large part of her role will involve building a positive working relationship with the federal government “so that we can best represent Albertans both in terms of our environmental goals, but also in terms of making sure that we have an energy industry that is strong and sustainable into the future.”

Ms. Schulz spoke with federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault about an hour after she was sworn in to her new role, and said she’s expecting their first in-person meeting in the next two weeks.

“We need to focus on the things that we agree on. Emissions reduction is very important, taking care of our environment – especially in a province as beautiful as Alberta,” she said. “But it also matters that we have a strong, sustainable, viable, competitive energy industry both now and into the future.”

One of the most pressing priorities for Ms. Schulz will be to develop an accelerated strategy for oil sands mine water management and tailings pond reclamation.

The problem of what to do with more than one trillion litres of tailings-laced water that languishes in ponds scattered across Alberta’s oil sands has long plagued industry and various levels of government, and Ottawa has for years been developing new regulations that could allow treated tailings water to be released into the Athabasca River.

While industry says companies need to be able to release treated tailings water so they can reclaim land disturbed by oil sands operations, local Indigenous communities and environmental groups say the plan presents an untenable ecological risk. Their arguments became even louder when it was revealed in the spring that Imperial Oil failed to inform communities of a continuing tailings pond leak at its Kearl oil sands project in Alberta’s north.

The Kearl leak – and the overflow of a separate pond at the same site – focused public attention on the ever-growing tailings problem.

Ms. Schulz acknowledged that solving the issue will be a challenge and will require frank discussions between the federal and provincial governments, industry and Indigenous communities in the area. But it’s something that Ms. Smith is keen to accelerate, she added.

Ms. Schulz and Mr. Jean have also been tasked with implementing Alberta’s Emissions Reduction and Energy Development Plan. Released just weeks before the provincial election, it set a goal of creating a carbon-neutral economy by 2050, matching a target date set by the federal government for the rest of the country.

Part of that goal will rely on attracting industries with lower environmental footprints to Alberta to help diversify the economy and significantly reducing the emissions of existing sectors such as oil and gas.

One of Mr. Jean’s pressing responsibilities, then, will be delivering on a campaign pledge to develop an investment incentive program for facilities that can lower emissions – through the use of carbon capture, for example – or in sectors such as ammonia production, lithium extraction and geothermal energy. It will be based on the Alberta Petrochemicals Incentive Program, which provides grants worth 12 per cent of a project’s eligible capital costs to companies after projects are operational.

Mr. Jean said in an interview that the program has already enhanced certainty and flexibility for investors in Alberta’s petrochemicals sector, and he expects it will do the same for other large-scale projects.

“It’s very simple, easy to understand, and it doesn’t pick winners and losers like some governments do,” he said.

“It allows everybody to have the same opportunity and an even playing field, and certainty, also, which is very important when you’re making a multibillion-dollar decision.”

Conspicuous in its absence from either mandate letter, however, was any mention of coal mining – an issue that plagued the last UCP government, to the point where a public outcry and near-universal opposition forced it to restore land protections against coal mining that it had earlier rolled back.

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