Stockwell Day has joined the leadership team of a Vancouver company that's planning to build a $10-billion oil sands refinery on the West Coast.
The former politician, who has held high-profile cabinet posts in the federal and Alberta governments, has been hired as a special adviser at Pacific Future Energy Corp. and will sit on its board of directors. He'll also head an arm's-length advisory council that's expected to be formed over the next few months.
"I've been very gratified that I've been involved in a number of projects since leaving politics, but this has to be right up there in terms of something that's exciting for me," Day said in an interview from Vancouver.
He said the proposed refinery, which bills itself as the world's greenest, could be a "legacy project for Canada."
Oil sands producers have been keen to access lucrative Asian markets, but stiff opposition to proposals such as Enbridge Inc.'s Northern Gateway pipeline has put a damper on those ambitions. One of the biggest environmental concerns has been the prospect of bitumen-laden tankers navigating coastal waters.
The Pacific Future proposal – along with others being floated by B.C. newspaper magnate David Black and aboriginal businessman Calvin Helin – would mean refined products, rather than heavy oil, would be shipped on tankers to Asia, making a potential spill less damaging.
Day's political experience spans the two provinces with the most at stake when it comes to West Coast energy exports. After his time in Alberta's Progressive Conservative government, Day was the MP for the British Columbia riding of Okanagan-Coquihalla, first for the now-defunct Canadian Alliance and then for the Conservatives.
He also has insight into the thinking of potential buyers of Canadian resources on the other side of the Pacific, having served as the federal trade minister and minister for the Asia-Pacific gateway.
The Pacific Future proposal would mean "high-tech, long-term jobs" for Canada, said Day, who left government in 2011.
"We're talking about refining product here rather than shipping what really is raw product to other countries and seeing the jobs produced there."
The environmental aspect is also key, said Day.
"I've talked with enough people all over British Columbia to realize that this is a genuine concern and a real impediment in the minds of many people."
Day said he's confident there will be interest in the project from both sides of the Pacific.
"What I've seen over the last few years in Asia … they've got a sincere desire to deal with their own environmental issues and even for them, there are some political advantages for them to be seen as receiving refined product," he said.
And there's interest from Alberta, too, he added.
"I can honestly say I've never ceased talking with people from Alberta – investors and CEOs – since the days I was in Alberta about the challenges of a unique product, but a product that in my view needs to be refined and needs to be refined here," he said.
"Of course, you have to make the economic case as well as the environmental case and this project does that."
Day said he hasn't talked to his former colleagues in Ottawa about Pacific Future, but "I have to think this would align with many of the aspirations of the federal government vis-a-vis Canadian trade and Canadian jobs."
The Pacific Future leadership team includes venture capitalists and former provincial and federal government advisers. Its executive chairman, Samer Salameh, has experience financing and building telecommunications infrastructure for Mexican conglomerate Groupo Salinas.
Pacific Future has also made First Nations engagement a priority. One of Salameh's first hires for the management team was Jeffrey Copenace, who was deputy chief of staff to former Assembly of First Nations chief Shawn Atleo and has worked with the Ontario and federal government on aboriginal issues.
Pacific Future says the refinery will be built in 200,000-barrel-per-day modules, with the ability to expand to a total of one million barrels per day.
It aims to pick a location later this year for the plant and begin the regulatory process next year.