Western alienation might not be the front-burner issue it once was. But for federal Tourism Minister and associate minister of finance Randy Boissonnault, the most consequential role he holds is likely lone Albertan at the federal cabinet table.
First elected as an MP in 2015, Mr. Boissonnault lost his Edmonton Centre seat in the 2019 election, when Alberta disenchantment with his Liberal Party was so strong that the governing party was shut out of the province completely. However, he was barely out of public life for two years before COVID-19 changed the tone and tenor of politics in his home province.
In the final days of this year’s federal election campaign, Mr. Boissonnault campaigned – as did other Alberta Liberal candidates – on the popularity of the federal government’s pandemic policies, and by attacking the province’s disastrously slow response to Alberta’s fourth wave.
“People’s psyche changed,” he said of the two years between federal elections, recalling an Edmonton block where a woman identified seven households that were saved by the Canada Emergency Response Benefit program to one of his campaign workers.
“There was a lot of heat on the doors in 2019, and none of that in 2021.”
On voting day, Mr. Boissonnault bested long-time Conservative rival James Cumming, by 615 votes, and won the job as MP back. He and Calgary Skyview’s George Chahal are the two Liberal MPs in the province, still a Conservative Party stronghold.
The pandemic and its effects continue to trump almost any other political or economic issue, and Mr. Boissonnault now says he’s keen to work with Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party government on an array of issues. But at some point in 2022, the tension between Alberta and Ottawa will once again be about the evolution of the energy sector and climate policy. Still, Mr. Boissonnault argues the two levels of government are poised to make concrete progress.
“Look, my family comes from the oil and gas sector. My dad and brother pulled rocks out of Fort McMurray for 10 years – up at the Susan Lake gravel pit,” he said in a recent interview.
“I talked to dozens of people on the campaign trail and they said to me, ‘We know that there’s a change coming. Just make sure it’s not a switch.”
The world is grappling with the contradictory crises of a shortage of fossil fuels this winter and a long list of climate-change weather disasters. At this moment, Canada will be pursuing both a cap on emissions from the oil and gas sector, and establishing a tax credit for carbon capture utilization and storage, or CCUS. They’re big files for Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault and Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, and they will have an outsized impact on Alberta.
It’s a delicate balancing act for a federal government: how to significantly reduce and capture emissions, while attracting new green-focused investment, without saddling the industry with rules and levies that will snuff it out – decades before other oil-producing countries stop pumping crude.
Alberta got its wish for the inclusion of support for large-scale, industrial carbon capture in the April, 2021, federal budget. But the details are still under development in the leadup to the 2022 budget. A major question remains outstanding: How do you structure a CCUS tax credit that doesn’t look like a subsidy for oil and gas (which the federal Liberals have promised will be a thing of the past by 2023), but also still manages to attract private-sector investment?
The Alberta government and the oil industry want billions of dollars in tax incentives for CCUS. To get into the weeds, a key sticking point is whether the credit includes enhanced oil recovery projects. EOR is a process that involves injecting carbon dioxide underground to draw oil or natural gas out of older petroleum reservoirs. While this seems like a counterintuitive process when the goal is reducing emissions, it’s a powerful incentive for oil companies to put their own money into projects. South of the border, the 45Q tax credit gives companies a deduction for carbon that has been captured and sequestered, and includes enhanced oil recovery projects.
“We’re very aware of the tax system in the U.S.,” Mr. Boissonnault said, adding, “We don’t want to put out in the media what might trigger different investment decisions. But I’ll say this: We are actively exploring these issues right now, and we will have a made-in-Canada solution … after and through deep consultations with industry.”
Mr. Boissonault, who once served as Canada’s special adviser to the prime minister on LGBTQ issues, has no qualms about being able to represent the whole province from his perch in Edmonton, even though Alberta’s two biggest cities often have different political outlooks and economic priorities.
He also suggested he’s keen in his second chance in federal politics to bust up outdated stereotypes, mentioning the province’s penchant of electing progressive mayors, including Jyoti Gondek in Calgary and his former Liberal colleague Amarjeet Sohi in Edmonton.
“Nobody is expecting Alberta to have a Nobel laureate in virology. And yet we do,” he said, referring to Michael Houghton, director of the University of Alberta’s Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute, who was co-recipient of the prize in 2020 for his crucial role in identifying the virus that causes hepatitis C.
“And nobody is expecting us to lead the way in capping greenhouse emissions, and have the oil and gas sector come to government and say, ‘We’re on a path to net zero. We’re ahead of where you are. How do we work on this together?’ ” he added.
“It’s the honour of my life to be minister for all Albertans. We’re a diverse bunch.”
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