The Trudeau government’s new point man on pipelines, energy policy and natural resources says he sees renewable power as part of a “mixture of options” that includes the Trans Mountain oil pipeline.
Amarjeet Sohi, one of three Liberal MPs hailing from Alberta, was appointed natural resources minister by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday. He replaces Jim Carr, who was shifted to the international trade file.
Sohi, the MP for Edmonton—Mill Woods, has been outspoken in defending the government's energy policy and in criticizing Alberta opposition United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney over energy and climate policy.
“Our government has been focused on growing the economy and creating jobs for the middle class, at the same time taking action on the environment,” Sohi told reporters after the cabinet shuffle at Rideau Hall, the governor general's residence in Ottawa.
“Natural resources, including renewable resources, are an integral part of our efforts to build a stronger middle class, and we see a mixture of options as we move forward.”
Sohi, who was previously managing the government’s rollout of billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure projects like public transit and green buildings, takes on a politically charged file in natural resources, in the run-up to the 2019 federal election, particularly the Trans Mountain pipeline and tanker expansion project.
Trudeau's office said Wednesday in a press release that it expected Sohi to oversee "important pipeline projects, including the completion of the Trans Mountain Expansion Project."
The prime minister also elevated North Vancouver MP Jonathan Wilkinson to a full cabinet minister position as minister of fisheries, oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard.
Wilkinson, who was parliamentary secretary to Catherine McKenna, the minister of environment and climate change, replaces Dominic LeBlanc, who was moved to intergovernmental affairs.
Funding and expanding Canadian renewable energy has also been a major focus of the government's efforts.
Jason Kenney continues to mislead Albertans. Ontario is getting $11.8B for infrastructure from the same program BC is getting $4.3B. No infrastructure funding is being withheld for Ontario. #ableg #cdnpoli #yeg https://t.co/UuGFCQDZAL— Amarjeet Sohi (@AmarjeetSohiYEG) July 5, 2018
In Sohi's home province of Alberta, the provincial government secured the lowest renewable electricity pricing in Canada, bringing in roughly $1 billion of private-sector investment and adding around 600 megawatts of wind power to the grid.
Renewable energy may also take on a stronger role for Sohi after the election of Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who has been shutting down Ontario renewable projects. Ottawa said it would review nearly $420 million in transfer payments meant for projects that reduce pollution.
Ford has also yanked the province's carbon pollution pricing system, meaning billions of dollars of revenue is being pulled out of green projects like energy retrofits. Trudeau's government plans to implement a federal carbon price on provinces that don't have their own systems by 2019.
'We need to change' oil price discount, Sohi says
The federal government has taken heat from several groups over its decision this summer to purchase Trans Mountain with $4.5 billion of public money.
Environmental groups, many First Nations on the pipeline’s direct path and the provincial NDP government of B.C. all oppose the project, saying it will contribute to climate change and expansion of the fossil fuel industry while increasing risk of an oil spill on the west coast.
Meanwhile, federal and provincial opposition Conservatives say the Trudeau government never should have directly bought into the energy business.
The government maintains the project is in the national interest, because they say it will create thousands of good-paying jobs, and contribute to economic prosperity by helping get a better international price for Canadian resources.
“We need to make sure that we're building this pipeline to get our resources to international, non-US markets,” said Sohi.
“The $15 billion that we lose every year because we get a discount our oil, we need to change that," he said, referring to the gap in price between the benchmark for North America and Alberta's oil.
Wilkinson: 'We have a plan' on killer whales
The unpopularity of the Trans Mountain pipeline in British Columbia, where the provincial government has fought Ottawa and the Alberta NDP for months, puts a spotlight on the 17 Liberal seats in B.C.
One of those seats is held by Wilkinson, who takes over the oceans file at time when a growing concern about the Trans Mountain pipeline is the survival of endangered southern resident killer whales.
A joint agreement between the government and the National Energy Board last fall showed both believed the operation of marine vessels related to the Trans Mountain project — likely oil tankers filling up or departing from the terminal near Burnaby, B.C. — “is likely to result in significant adverse effects” on the whales.
They “face an imminent threat to survival and recovery which requires immediate attention,” the government has said.
Speaking to reporters after the cabinet shuffle, Wilkinson acknowledged that the southern resident killer whale is an “important file that we have been working on actively for two or three years now."
“The issues that affect killer whales relate to noise pollution from ships, they relate to availability of prey — which is primarily Chinook salmon — and they relate to contaminants in the water,” he said.
The government’s 2018 budget included $167.4 million to help with recovery of the southern resident killer whale, the North Atlantic right whale and the St. Lawrence Estuary beluga whale.
Wilkinson, in his old job, was on hand in Vancouver on June 22 to outline the government’s Whales Initiative, which draws on that funding to improve the availability of prey, limit fishing of Chinook salmon, and boosting scientific research and monitoring.
“We’ve got a plan that we announced, including $167 million to address those issues,” he said at Rideau Hall, referring to the Whales Initiative.
“We have a plan. We are working with stakeholders. I believe we will be able to put the killer whales onto a better track and to work towards recovery of the species.”