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Former federal cabinet minister Jim Prentice officially launches his campaign for the Alberta Progressive Conservative leadership in Edmonton on Wednesday, May 21, 2014.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

At the official launch of his provincial Progressive Conservative leadership bid, Jim Prentice said he intends to "aggressively" pursue a West Coast outlet for oil sands production, saying the role of Alberta Premier is critical to building relationships with First Nations and the British Columbia government.

Mr. Prentice is known for speaking forcefully both on the need to include First Nations in resource development and the imperative to get landlocked Western Canadian oil to lucrative Asian markets. Before his decision earlier this month to enter the Alberta political contest, he had been working as an envoy for Enbridge Inc. to reach out to First Nations fiercely opposed to the company's Northern Gateway pipeline – a project that would transport crude across Alberta and B.C. to be loaded onto Pacific tankers.

But asked about Northern Gateway on Wednesday, he suggested he can do more as a politician.

"The critical person in all of this, the critical person in my view, is the Premier of Alberta," he told reporters in Calgary. "The Premier of Alberta bears a heavy responsibility to build the partnerships that we're going to need with Coastal First Nations, the partnership that we're going to need with the government of British Columbia. I've not lost sight of that and I'll be speaking more about this in the days ahead."

Mr. Prentice, also a former Calgary MP and senior banking executive, said the energy-rich province needs to end its near-complete reliance on selling to U.S. markets, where Canadian crude trades at a discount.

After weeks of talk from his campaign staff and supporters, Mr. Prentice officially announced his candidacy – and gave the first glimpse of his platform – on Wednesday. The winner of the PC party's September leadership vote will become the next Alberta Premier, likely until the 2016 election.

In similar-sounding announcements in both Edmonton and Calgary, Mr. Prentice talked about his deep love for the province and emphasized his humble beginnings working in the mines in Alberta's Crowsnest Pass to pay his way through university. Referring to his father, who had a brief career in the National Hockey League, he said he knows he's entering a competitive leadership contest. "The Prentices aren't afraid of a little body contact," he said.

Ric McIver, a Calgary MLA who resigned a cabinet post to enter the race, is Mr. Prentice's only declared competition. It's expected that Alberta Labour Minister Thomas Lukaszuk will also be a contender. But in the Tory caucus of 58, Mr. Prentice already has the declared support of at least 45 MLAs.

One reporter asked Mr. Prentice why, with his long history in federal Conservative circles, he chose Alberta politics over Ottawa. "We have a Prime Minister who's doing a fine job, and I have every confidence he'll be the Prime Minister for the foreseeable future," he replied.

In speeches in both cities, Mr. Prentice checked off a lot of political boxes, saying he will build schools and roads, create a leaner government and smaller cabinet, defend private property rights, and maximize the value of the province's vast natural resources.

He said the province must be serious about environmental standards, but he will not allow government policies to damage the competitiveness of the oil-and-gas industry. "My government will support vigorous and beneficial environmental standards while ensuring – while ensuring – the continued responsible expansion of the oil sands."

In March, former premier Alison Redford resigned after internal party criticism of her leadership style and public scrutiny of her international travel expenses. In the past, the PC party has also been criticized for giving government jobs and contracts to party-friendly individuals and firms. On Wednesday, Mr. Prentice also indicated he wanted to address "entitlement" issues.