Margaret McCuaig-Boyd appeared to be an industry outsider when she came onto Alberta’s energy scene in 2015.

The former educator and consultant is from Fairview, Alta., a Peace Country town of 3,300 people about an hour north of the City of Grande Prairie and 800 kilometres north of Calgary.

There is oil in northwestern Alberta, though it is deeply buried and consistently produces the lowest yield of Alberta’s oilsands deposits, according to a 10-year overview released by the provincial government in 2016.

McCuaig-Boyd’s appointment as Alberta energy minister raised questions about the fledgling NDP government’s plans for the natural resource industry. What did this untested government and its unknown energy minister have in store for a province that relies on resource revenues? For a province that, in 2015, faced the ripple effects of bottoming-out oil and gas revenues?

Even today, Alberta’s energy minister is fast to note her unseen ties to the oil industry. “I come from a family that is quite involved in oil and gas … and I live in Northwest Alberta, which is over some of the richest resources in Alberta, so I certainly see the benefit that the energy industry provides in my local area," she says when asked how the job has aligned with her expectations so far.

"I have many uncles, and cousins, and a brother and a daughter that are all in the industry.”

Oil and pipelines debates

Two years into the mandate of Rachel Notley’s NDP in Alberta, McCuaig-Boyd spoke to National Observer about how she envisions the province's future energy mix and how Alberta now handles its most famous and most criticized resource: the oilsands.

Fifty years old in 2017, Canada’s oilsands are “among the most carbon-intensive large-scale crude oil operations” in the world, according to the Pembina Institute. The Alberta-based think tank also notes the toxic byproduct of extraction that lays fluid in oil sands tailings ponds could fill 400,000 Olympic swimming pools, the oilsands have displaced animals, and promises of land reclamation remain largely under-realized. The federal government has also described the oilsands industry as Canada's fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Other critics consistently question whether Alberta gets enough revenue from the oilsands — a matter reviewed by Notley's government and, 10 years ago, former Progressive Conservative premier Ed Stelmach's.

McCuaig-Boyd says she loves the oil industry. She is an advocate for pipelines. And, she says, she doesn’t have time for those who want to see oilsands growth halted — an idea that has been afloat, in different ways and from different sources, for years.

Former Progressive Conservative Alberta premier Peter Lougheed, who steered the development of the province's oilsands, wanted to see their growth slowed and better managed before his death in 2012. Former federal NDP leader Jack Layton campaigned on a moratorium in 2008. Environmental groups like the Council of Canadians and Greenpeace want to see oilsands expansion stopped to minimize their negative consequences.

McCuaig-Boyd’s expressions of support may seem a bit jarring, coming from a member of the left-leaning NDP. But they align with Notley’s messaging and support for oilsands pipelines since coming into office.

While Notley’s government brought in a carbon tax — a target for their conservative opponents who are now led by former Conservative MP and cabinet minister Jason Kenney — it has also been stridently in favour of pipelines and finding new markets for Alberta’s growing oilsands. Although Alberta's NDP government has also proposed a firm cap on the entire oilsands industry's annual carbon pollution, its support for new pipelines has put it at odds with both B.C.’s NDP government and the federal NDP's position against pipelines like the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain expansion.

The cap on oilsands emissions would allow operators to emit the equivalent of up to 100 megatonnes of carbon dioxide per year, up from the current estimated level of 70 megatonnes per year. But carbon pollution would not be allowed to exceed that amount in any given year, under the Alberta NDP government's plan.

The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Alberta Energy Minister Margaret McCuaig-Boyd (left) and Premier Rachel Notley tour Enbridge's Line 3 pipeline replacement site at Hardisty, Alta. on Aug. 10, 2017.
Alberta Energy Minister Margaret McCuaig-Boyd (left) and Premier Rachel Notley tour Enbridge's Line 3 pipeline replacement site at Hardisty, Alta. on Aug. 10, 2017. Photo provided by the Government of Alberta

What do you want to make sure that you see finished by the time you’re done with this file?

"Well I certainly want to see a pipeline to the west coast being built. The pipeline is pretty important … we want to diversify our markets. Right now a lot of our product just goes south and we need more than one customer. We need to position ourselves in Alberta as the energy producer the world needs for the 21st century, and that’s leading in all areas of energy, leveraging what our traditional strengths have been in oil and gas as the foundation towards going to a lower carbon economy, which we’re well on our way (to) with our climate leadership plan. But at the same time we have to keep people working and build a strong economy, or at the end of the day we don’t have a plan if we don’t have those things in mind."

Kinder Morgan (Trans Mountain pipeline expansion) has been approved, what would you do to sort of see it through? Where does the provincial government come in at this point?

"We certainly have worked with the company a lot in … supporting their plan and supporting their conversations. We as a government have talked about the opportunities for jobs and moving resources and that’s part of a greener future. We’ve certainly talked about how pipelines are safe, showing that the safety is there. We have, again, a lot of innovative people in Alberta who work full time on pipeline safety, so to talk about those opportunities. We here in Alberta certainly live over pipelines, and we’re always concerned about safety, but we have a huge trust because we know the people that work in the industry are always looking at safer ways to build them and we’re farmers and ranchers and hunters, who want a landscape that we can live in. We tell those stories for people that maybe don’t know. We talk about the opportunities, not just for Alberta, but across the country, that pipelines bring.

"I live in a small town, and the hotels are fuller, even my hair dresser now is busier than she used to be, because the economy’s picking up again. Everybody benefits from a healthy energy economy. You know we talk about those stories, we talk with our partners in other provinces, and you know, again, I’ve said many times this isn’t just about Alberta, it’s about Canada and prosperity for all."

How do you read the tenor of the pipeline debate in Canada at the moment?

“It’s hard to say, I think there’s more in favour than not. And sometimes I look at, there’s going to be a small number who never agree with it, and a small number who are at the other end, but there’s a middle ground there who maybe have questions. They aren’t necessarily against pipelines, they just maybe have questions. So we’re doing our part. I often talk about our climate leadership plan (as) taking action on the environment, and how we see that as going hand-in-hand with a strong economy.

"I’m not sure how familiar you are with our plan, but in Alberta we’re putting a price on carbon and phasing out coal. We’re working very hard on methane pollution, which is, we’re going to reduce that by 45 per cent, and a lot of the money that we’re getting from the carbon levy is going into rebates, for green infrastructure, and you know, one example in Calgary is there’s a green line LRT that wouldn’t be happening without that. When I talk about what we’re doing in Alberta and we’re putting a cap on oil sands ... We do have a mind to (building) a greener energy economy. People sometimes are surprised, because in Alberta we know that but not necessarily outside of Alberta. So, we try to tell that story, that we really believe we can do it all."

When you say, 'a cap on oilsands' (what do you mean)?

"Part of our leadership plan is capping oilsands emissions while continuing to grow, and a lot of that’s going to depend on innovation and technology."

Suncor Oil Sands - Andy Wright
Alberta's oil sands. File photo by Andrew S. Wright

What would you say to someone who ... said, 'what if we stopped growth at this point and stayed with the oilsands where they are'?

"We believe that we can continue to produce in the oilsands and yet cap the emissions, and we can do both. ... There’s a number of innovations going on in Alberta to tackle those very matters. … Fifty years ago this year, we’re celebrating the innovation that allowed us to take the oil out of the sand. And I fully expect 50 years from now we’ll talk about how we’re taking the carbon out of the barrel. And for myself, to be honest, I have no time to talk to people about shutting down hydrocarbons in Alberta. We can do both and we are doing both."

I’m curious where you see the energy mix going, between now and 2030?

"In our plan, we’re going to go off of coal-fired electricity, and we’re going to replace, we’re going to be doing about 30 per cent renewables, and the remaining 70 per cent will likely be natural gas-fired electricity. We have the cap on oilsands emissions. We’re looking at diversifying in our province, and looking at more opportunities to use carbon in different ways, and the resources that we have, building on upgrading petrochemicals. Are there things we can do with the carbon that we’re sequestering right now, build products out of carbon? So there’s a number of different university groups and just smaller groups that some of the companies have put their (research and development) money together to look at solving some of these big problems and look at a world both upstream and midstream and downstream, and what we can do to keep some of it here in Alberta."

What do you think that the energy labour, or job, scene is going to look like by 2030? Where will people be working if they’re working in energy?

"I think they’ll continue to work in energy. … I think there’ll always be somebody working in the fossil fuel industry, but it will look different, but it will still be fossil fuel as we transition to a low-carbon future. We’re going to leverage our traditional knowledge, but also Albertans are extremely innovative. I live in northern Alberta, which I think is even more innovative. You know, you put a problem in front of an Albertan and they find a solution, and our industry are fine examples of that attitude."

A couple weeks ago I spoke with someone from … Lethbridge College’s wind turbine program. They were saying more of their students coming in were from the oil (industry) and were looking at wind energy as a job that will last.

“I think there’s certainly interest in it. People see that there’s a direction … we actually put our ambition in legislation, 5,000 megaWatts of power by 2030 that will be renewable. There’s going to be 7,000-ish jobs just in that endeavour alone. There’s going to be lots of work ... There’ll still be lots of jobs in the oil industry, but there will be lots in renewables, and in transitioning, so I think there’s going to be jobs. We have to keep in mind jobs, and (keep) a strong economy in our plan, or it isn’t a plan."

Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion hearings took place in Vancouver in August, 2016. Screen capture from video by the Dogwood Initiative

Coming back to Kinder Morgan, how is it going when you speak to your counterpart in the British Columbia government?

"I’ve had some good conversations with Minister (Michelle) Mungall, and they rightfully are keeping an eye on it, it’s their province, and they want to understand the project just as we have a mind to that. But we’re working together. And to be clear, this pipeline has been approved. So they understand it’s good for them as well as for us. Many benefit agreements have been reached along the way.

"I think they, like us, want to see good jobs and a strong economy, but at the same time want to know that it’s being built properly and will have an eye on the construction as it goes forward. But it has been approved, and they’re working on issuing permits, as we are. You know, the feds need to provide their regulation part and we all need to work together to get this built."

We’ve also seen … Enbridge Northern Gateway approved, and then not happen. At this point what would you be worried about?

"I know (federal Natural Resources) Minister (Jim) Carr did say they looked at what the previous government’s gaps were on Northern Gateway and learned from that, so there was some extra consultations for Trans Mountain, and they feel that they’ve done what they needed to do, their due diligence. Northern Gateway was a different pipeline, a different government. But, you know, we are confident in the process, as is the federal government. And it was based on that plus our climate leadership plan that got the approval. But I need to say previous governments didn’t do their job. That’s led to some of the cynicism you were asking me about with the industry and not trusting some of the environmental concerns and that. I think our federal government now learned from the previous government and made sure it was a rigorous process and on that basis gave the approval for it."

What are you most excited about for the near future and for Alberta?

"You know, seeing all of these pieces fall into place, I absolutely love the energy industry. I’m a proud Albertan and you know we in Alberta do very much appreciate the energy industry … But I look forward to ... doing all these things we plan to do, growing the industry but also growing our environmental side, keeping a strong economy in Alberta, and good jobs, seeing it all fall into place will be quite a happy time for me."

Do you think people outside of Alberta would be surprised to ... hear the NDP government talk about how closely it works with the energy industry?

"They might be, but it just makes sense. We’re all working people, we appreciate — I always say I’m an Alberta NDP, I’m very proud of our industry and what we have done. As I mentioned, my family has a lot of connections in the industry, you know, so, there’s a lot of working people there and our party is about working people, so it really isn’t a disconnect to fight for hard-working people and good jobs and the climate. It really does all fit together."

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It is easy for the Alberta Government to focus on the oil sands and ignore the effects of the fracking that is happening throughout rural Alberta. Industry is now campaigning to not include the tons of methane emitted from fracked wells and compressor stations in any future limit on emissions. Albertans suffer while excuses are made.

SHAMEon you, Margaret!! WHERE does it say that fossil fuel jobs are the ONLY jobs that your relatives and countless others MUST DO?!! You, or at least some reporter who interviewed you, called what your ministry is promoting in the oilpatch a "FILE"? You and your buddies need to get out of your glass offices and take a much closer look at the disgusting MESS that northern Alberta is, as well as the havoc it is wreaking in the whole area, not only environmentally but also socially!!

Another politician who believes what she want to believe, and hasn't troubled herself to actually learn the science behind the climate crisis and what it predicts for our shared future. Just more wilful ignorance, happy to work towards mass extinctions, escalating severity of weather events and their attendant gigantic costs and harms, potential devastation of the BC coast and related economy, all with a facile statement that 'pipelines are safe'. Why? Because my relatives make money from this. How are pipelines safe? Well, because we'd like to think so, and in any regard, the equally happily ignorant and pandering federal government has already approved the project, in search of the same pile of votes and money, from the same vested interests who've always bleated the loudest and bought the best access to government ears.

Politicians like this are selling out all the coming generations, despite the fact that we now have the technology to change our ways, and the certain knowledge that we should. Comfortably ignorant politicians unweighted by any conscience, because, hey, the other guys are even more selfish and unethical. The point isn't whether pipelines are safe, but whether the product they carry, when burned, will push us every closer to an unsurvivable planet this century. Bah. Criminally unconcerned.

The main argument used by the Alberta government (actual and past administrations) is that a pipeline going to the west coast will able Canadian oil producers to reach Asian markets. That was the same argument used for the EnergyEast project. There are simply no markets in Asia ( or European) for Canada's heavy crude oil.
Actually, Canadian oil producers can ship their crude oil (if not mixed with U.S. oil products) to foreign countries through U.S. port facilities, especially from the Gulf Coast area where more and more of Canadian crude oil is sent to be refined because of expanding pipeline capacity to the area. Despite having that possibility, Canadian crude oil exports to foreign countries other than the U.S. (around 0.8% of all Canadian crude oil exports, consisting entirely of light crude oil) have not gone up.
Tankers that are allowed to go to the Kinder Morgan oil terminal are to small to make it economically viable shipping Canadian crude oil to Asia. Kinder Morgan has not demonstrated or showed any evidence of actual markets (or future markets) in Asia that would support the argument about the necessity of expanding this pipeline.
Most countries around the world are drawing policies to lower their dependency on foreign source of energy, especially oil. China and India which are coping with major air and water pollution are moving quickly to more renewable and sustainable forms of energy production. Some European countries want to ban the sale of combustion engine cars and reduce drastically the use of diesel which has been proven to be particularly harmful to public health. Half of the electric cars sold around the world are in China, where the government is also investing massively in wind and solar energy production.
Unless the price of oil goes back to what it was three years ago, the possibility for Canadian oil producers to make money exporting their crude to other countries (if there are markets available) than the U.S. is practically null. That is why the oil shipped through the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline will end up, as the actual crude oil going through this pipeline, in U.S. West Coast refineries.

No surprise that all governments love to "work" with the oil and gas industry. As long as there's taxes to be gained, pockets to be lined, who wouldn't?

"We believe that we can continue to produce in the oilsands and yet cap the emissions, and we can do both. ... and, "... growing the industry but also growing our environmental side."
Have you ever seen or heard such a meganachronism?
Get grounded with the real truths of science and climate change. Fossil fuels will continue to kill any "environmental side".

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