Sonya Savage had already left her government relations position at Enbridge Inc. by the time Ottawa finally rejected the company’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline to the B.C. coast, but the opposition that helped kill the project had been building through her entire career there.
The project’s death in 2016, which was announced the same day the Trudeau government approved the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, followed years of fierce activism and legal challenges from environmentalists and First Nations, as well as skepticism – although not outright opposition – from British Columbia’s government.
Ms. Savage, who is now Alberta’s Energy Minister under the United Conservative Party government of Premier Jason Kenney, sees similar forces conspiring against the Trans Mountain project, which has been stalled since a court ruling last year and is awaiting a decision from the federal cabinet.
"I had a front-row seat to watch the action unfold,” said Ms. Savage, who left Enbridge in 2015 to work for the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association (CEPA). “I saw it play out against every single energy project that was moving through the system.”
The UCP came to power last month after a campaign that focused heavily on fighting for the province’s oil industry, largely by taking on perceived enemies of pipelines and other energy projects.
Ms. Savage, whose long career in the industry made her an obvious choice for the energy ministry, is now a central figure in those fights.
One of her first tasks was to accompany Mr. Kenney to Ottawa to argue against a piece of environmental legislation at a Senate committee hearing. She will handle other sensitive files, including speeding up approvals in the oil sands, cuts to the production of crude oil that began under the previous government, and the cleanup of thousands of orphan wells. And she will also join Mr. Kenney as he rails against “foreign-funded environmentalists,” whom the province intends to target with a public inquiry.
“What we know is that the previous approach did not work,” she said, referring to the NDP government.
Ms. Savage, who grew up on her family’s farm near Calgary, has been in both the energy industry and Alberta’s conservative politics for decades.
She was president of the Progressive Conservative Youth in the 1980s, and was involved in the PC party, and now the UCP, for much of the time since.
Ms. Savage worked as a lawyer before joining Enbridge in 2006, lobbying the federal government on the company’s projects – not just Northern Gateway but also the Line 9 and Alberta Clipper pipelines. During her time at Enbridge, she obtained a master of laws degree with a focus on energy and the environment.
She became the senior director for policy and regulatory affairs for CEPA, an industry group, in 2015, and worked there until she entered provincial politics this year.
While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government rejected Northern Gateway in the fall of 2016, its future was already in doubt. A court earlier in the year had overturned the project’s federal approval because of inadequate consultation with Indigenous people – much like in the case of Trans Mountain – and the industry had largely given up hope the project would proceed.
Patrick Daniel, who was president and chief executive office of Enbridge until 2012, said Ms. Savage’s experience on such a controversial pipeline makes her well-suited for her new cabinet post.
He acknowledged that a provincial government is limited in what it can do to force progress on a federally regulated pipeline.
“All we can do is put forward as strong and as logical an argument as we can for the responsible development of our resources and then hope for the best,” he said.
Chris Bloomer, president and CEO of CEPA, said Ms. Savage’s experience will be an asset as Alberta rallies other provinces to the pipeline cause, something Mr. Kenney has already attempted to do by joining forces with conservative governments in Ontario, Saskatchewan and elsewhere.
“It’s very important that the provinces are consistent and united on these policies,” Mr. Bloomer said. “When you have like-minded energy ministers in other provinces, I think she can be a leader among that group.”
Aside from pipelines, other priorities for Ms. Savage include addressing Alberta’s thousands of orphaned oil and gas wells – a problem that could be exacerbated by the recent collapse of Calgary-based Trident Exploration Corp., which left a $329-million bill to clean up 4,700 wells.
The UCP election platform promised to change how those wells are managed, including an overhaul of how that work is paid for and a call for federal funds, although Ms. Savage said it is too early to go into detail.
The United Conservatives also promised to replace the board of the Alberta Energy Regulator, beginning with Ed Whittingham, who became a target during the campaign because of his history with the energy think tank the Pembina Institute. Mr. Whittingham resigned just before the new government was sworn in.
Ms. Savage said no decision has been made on next steps regarding the AER.
“The specific focus of the campaign was on Ed Whittingham,” she said. “[Replacing the entire board] is an option, but we haven’t landed on that yet. The main problem is gone."