In a move reminiscent of the Lougheed era, the Alberta government introduced legislation last week to make it easier for public dollars to go towards loans or investments in projects that will help get better prices for province's oil and natural gas – and get resources out of the landlocked province and onwards to foreign and domestic markets.
And a key detail: the projects don't have to be in Alberta.
Provincial officials insist the Building New Petroleum Markets Act is aimed squarely at maximizing the value of Alberta's natural resources. But they acknowledge the bill, in a side benefit, could also open to the door to the province investing in projects that will create jobs and tax revenues in other provinces, including British Columbia – where a pipeline-wary public is far from convinced that oil sands are of national benefit.
It also fits into Premier Alison Redford's idea of a Canadian Energy Strategy, in which she envisions the provinces working side-by-side to help build the country's energy industry.
"We are open to alternatives," Alberta Energy Minister Ken Hughes said, talking to reporters about the bill in Calgary last week.
"We are going to create the vehicle so that we have all options on the table to explore how we help make things happen to build the capacity – to build this country, to build this province."
Mr. Hughes wouldn't be more specific about what projects his government is looking at, and also has insisted the legislation is not related to last week's framework agreement between the B.C. and Alberta governments on how heavy oil pipelines, such as Enbridge Inc.'s controversial Northern Gateway project to the West Coast, might proceed.
Many British Columbians are against approval of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, mainly out of concerns for a devastating land or ocean-based spill, or greenhouse gases emissions from the oil sands. However, some argue that if a pipeline project came with the promise of jobs and tax revenues, it would be more palatable.
For instance, B.C. newspaper publisher David Black – the force behind a proposed $26-billion oil refinery project near Kitimat, B.C. – said the province's citizens will support his project and its 3,000 jobs rather than a pipeline that will simply ship bitumen across the province to be loaded into ocean tankers. If his massive refinery plan ever becomes a reality, the products being shipped by tanker to overseas Asian markets will be gasoline and diesel instead of oil sands bitumen, which many believe is harder to clean up in the event of a spill. Mr. Black said he plans to ask for billions in federal dollars to help fund the project, and has also talked with Alberta – though he said he doesn't need the province's help at this point.
Former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed, who died last year, was a strong proponent of value-adding jobs staying on Canadian soil, and also of grand, nation-building projects. In 1985, he used money from the Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund to provide much of the financing for a $275-million Prince Rupert, B.C. grain terminal (which also ensured markets for Alberta's grain). Within the province, he bought an airline, and helped incent a petrochemical industry. His Progressive Conservative government set up the Alberta Energy Company – one of the predecessors of Encana Corp. and Cenovus Energy Inc. – "to provide Albertans and other Canadians with an opportunity to participate, through share ownership, in the industrial and energy-related growth of the province," according to a history on the Cenovus website.
The Klein years saw government enunciate a strong ideological aversion to "the business of being in business." Along with privatizing Alberta's liquor stores, former premier Ralph Klein's government sold off the last shares in the energy company.
But now, it appears the government is talking a cue from Mr. Lougheed. The new legislation puts new emphasis on Alberta's energy minister, who can now give specific direction to the Alberta Petroleum Marketing Commission – the agency that decides how to market and sell bitumen from the oil sands and conventional oil that the government receives in lieu of cash royalties. The minister will direct the agency "based on the public interest and government priorities."
Already in this vein, the Progressive Conservative government has taken on a share of the risk and possible rewards at refinery under construction just outside of Edmonton. The $5.7-billion Sturgeon project – which when completed will turn oil sands bitumen into diesel – would have never broken ground without Alberta government backing.
And this past July, the Alberta government committed to deliver 100,000 barrels of oil per day through TransCanada Corp.'s proposed Energy East pipeline to the East Coast.
"I wouldn't characterize it as being in the business of business," Mr. Hughes said.
"We're preparing ourselves, if needed, to be able to use our substantial strength as an economy, and as a province, and as the owner of the resource, to play a constructive, strategic role, if needed, to make stuff happen."
Kelly Cryderman reports from The Globe's Calgary bureau.