Jim Prentice, soon to be Alberta's 16th premier, has worked for years to earn the trust of two warring camps in the battle to build an oil pipeline to the west coast: the energy industry and Canada's First Nations. Now he faces a conundrum: how to get those camps to trust each other.
Mr. Prentice, a former federal cabinet minister, won over some First Nations groups in Alberta and B.C. with his unequivocal support for their rights and his stance that regulatory approvals are not enough to secure Enbridge Inc.'s right to build its proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. First Nations, he has said in the past, must be on board with the project first.
"One of the great public policy failures in Canadian history was the failure to actually execute land claim treaties and, in a sense, titlement, in British Columbia over of course of the last 150 years," Mr. Prentice said in May, 2011, addressing the difficulties Northern Gateway faces. "And so the reality on the ground is that the constitutional and legal position of the First Nations is very strong."
More recently, Mr. Prentice argued during the race to lead Alberta's Progressive Conservative Party that he was the candidate who could make the pipeline happen. He won that race Saturday, and now must show how he plans to move the stalled pipeline plan forward. Northern Gateway plans to take Alberta oil to Kitimat, B.C., where it would be loaded on to tankers and shipped to customers in Asia – a key new market for energy companies operating in Canada.
Art Sterritt, executive director of B.C.'s Coastal First Nations, said Mr. Prentice understands that members of his alliance are after more than money. They want the industry to come up with better techniques to clean up potential oil spills on their territories and the waters of the Pacific before they talk money and consider budging on their opposition to the $7.9-billion project.
"There's nobody better suited to working with First Nations out of Alberta that we've seen yet," Mr. Sterritt said of Mr. Prentice. "His understanding of what our issues are and his ability to move industry as opposed to what other people have been able to do" could open the door for more negotiating, he said. Mr. Sterritt has repeatedly met with Mr. Prentice.
But other First Nations in British Columbia opposed to Northern Gateway don't see how Mr. Prentice can build bridges between all sides. Ellis Ross, the Haisla Nation's chief councillor, said he has never met with Mr. Prentice, or Enbridge to discuss economic terms, or former Alberta premier Alison Redford, who also pushed hard for the pipeline. There's too much unfinished business with B.C. and the federal government regarding First Nations rights and titles to bother meeting with Alberta's premier, even if it's Jim Prentice, Mr. Ross said.
"The issue around the crude oil pipeline has got to do with the impact of crude oil on the environment. And for that, the duty of that consultation, lies with the Crown – and in our case, that means the government of B.C. And in the pipeline respect of Enbridge, that means with the government of Canada," he said. "It really has got nothing to do with the premier of Alberta."
The energy sector believes Mr. Prentice could get a deal done.
John Carruthers, Northern Gateway's president, believes Mr. Prentice could convince First Nations to back down. "I would agree that he could very well deal with them," he told reporters last week. But, at the same time, he also conceded the pipeline is unlikely to be moving oil by 2018 as planned, saying more time is required to cut deals with First Nations.
Enbridge in March appointed Mr. Prentice as a liaison between the company and First Nations, a post he quit in order to run for the Alberta PC leadership. Previously, he was the former federal cabinet minister for aboriginal affairs, industry and environment.
The pipeline's potential shippers also have faith Mr. Prentice can pull off what no other political or industry leader has been able to accomplish.
"Mr. Prentice has a good focus on what needs to be done for development of our resource for the benefit of all of Canada," Ivor Ruste, Cenovus Energy Inc.'s chief financial officer and a board member at the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said at a conference in Toronto Tuesday. "Getting pipeline and transportation access to markets should be on the top of his list. And he has indicated he understands that."
With files from Jeff Lewis in Calgary and Shawn McCarthy in Toronto