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Ted Morton has been handed the Alberta energy portfolio in a shuffle orchestrated by Alison Redford, the province’s new Premier, who promoted former energy head Ron Liepert to Finance Minister.JASON FRANSON

Alberta must sharpen the environmental performance of the oil sands if it is to continue expanding its most important industry, the province's new conservation-minded Energy Minister warns.

On Wednesday, Ted Morton was handed the Alberta energy portfolio in a shuffle orchestrated by Alison Redford, the province's new Premier, who promoted former energy head Ron Liepert to Finance Minister.

Mr. Morton is a strong fiscal conservative who, in the 1990s, led campaigns against the Kyoto Protocol, which sought to reduce production of greenhouse gases. But he is also a hunter whose more recent public statements have focused on the need to to put "conservation" back into the meaning of being a "conservative." He was one of the architects of a land-use planning process that has seen the province seek to set aside certain undeveloped areas of the oil sands to protect.

In an interview on Wednesday, he said the oil sands industry must pollute less water and air if it is to continue growth that envisages a doubling in output over the next decade, to three million barrels a day.

"The bigger it [the oil sands]gets, the higher the standards," he said. He pointed to the U.S. State Department's environmental impact statement on the Keystone XL pipeline, which specifically noted Alberta conservation initiatives in its conclusion that the project would do little environmental harm.

"If we want continued and expanded access to U.S. markets, we have to improve outcomes," he said. "If we want to keep the regulation of oil sands in Alberta, not done by Ottawa, we have to keep improving outcomes."

The issue is important enough, he added, that it will play a role in how rapidly the oil sands is allowed to grow.

"How quickly production ramps up, I think, will be a function of how good a job we do on dealing with tailing ponds, air, water and caribou issues."

Mr. Morton is known as a blunt-talking politician unafraid to spar with those he disagrees with – in particular the media. But his statements stirred optimism among critics, who have often loudly opposed Alberta's near-uninterrupted record on approving oil sands projects and derided the province's reticence to bring in strong environmental regulation.

"It does strike me as a unique tone coming from a provincial cabinet minister," said Ed Whittingham, executive director of the Pembina Institute, a Calgary-based environmental lobby group.

"When I hear that, I'm hearing someone who understands ... that there are environmental thresholds in the oil sands. And if we double, triple or quadruple production up there, we're at risk of crossing over those thresholds. And that's not good for Alberta."

Mr. Morton, however, pledged to continue the course on many plans set in motion by Mr. Liepert, the outgoing minister who championed a Canadian energy strategy and helped oversee efforts to cut regulatory red tape. Mr. Morton's new portfolio gives him "definitely an advocacy role" for industry, he said, adding that the province intends to table a "regulatory enhancement initiative" in the spring.

Industry welcomed Mr. Morton, pointing to the fact that four of the political leaders behind the red-tape-cutting exercise are in the new cabinet, including Diana McQueen, the former parliamentary assistant in energy who is now Minister of Environment and Water.

That provides "consistency," said Lowell Jackson, an energy company executive and chair of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. Industry expects Mr. Morton to continue where Mr. Liepert left off, he said.

"Right now, I don't see any change," he said.

Still, Mr. Morton seems unlikely to be as strong a corporate booster as his predecessor, who made such a strong case for industry that his opponents often used his statements against him.

"When you see all the protests in Washington, almost every document that goes out is quoting Ron Liepert. That may tell us in some ways that the approach hasn't worked as well as we might have liked," said Andrew Leach, an associate business professor at the University of Alberta who specializes in natural resources, energy and environment.

He expects Mr. Morton to be "aggressive" in defence of industry, "but perhaps in a slightly quieter way. So backing up words with actions as opposed to just words."