Ken Hughes treads carefully on Northern Gateway
Alberta's energy minister faces critics on all sides
When Premier Alison Redford named her longtime friend and political ally as minister of energy last May, she was throwing Ken Hughes into the deepest part of Alberta’s political pool.
Hughes responded by dog paddling to the shallow end. And that’s where the rookie MLA has been bobbing around ever since, getting a feel for the currents and undertows of these treacherous waters – and keeping himself out of trouble.
It’s not that Hughes doesn’t know politics: he was an Alberta MP from 1988 to 1993; or that he doesn’t know the energy industry: he has sat on the boards of oil and gas companies.
He is approaching the energy portfolio as a bomb disposal expert might approach a minefield. He’s smart, experienced and knows what he wants to accomplish. He also knows the dangers of a single misstep.
As minister of energy, Hughes is arguably the most important provincial politician in Alberta next to the premier. Name a thorny issue facing the province and odds are the energy department is involved: expanding Alberta’s electricity grid has sparked a revolt of sorts in rural Alberta over property rights; a $2-billion experiment in carbon capture and sequestration has critics grumbling about a white elephant; falling prices for oil and natural gas have the province’s budget on a collision course with more deficits.
Besides building more transmission towers and finding ways to reduce carbon emissions, Hughes has a to-do list that includes overhauling the province’s regulatory system currently spread among the departments of Energy and Environment and Sustainable Resource Development as well as the Energy Resources Conservation Board.
Hughes wants to merge the disparate agencies into a single department to deliver a “one-window approval process for industry.” His goal is to provide stability and predictability for investors. But the “regulatory enhancement project” has critics predicting an environment-busting approval system akin to what was in the federal government’s notorious omnibus bill last spring.
In fact, there isn’t an issue where Hughes doesn’t just have critics on one side but on two, or more. He’s a veritable one-man charge of the Light Brigade. Greenpeace to the left of him, Wildrose to the right. And the news media to the front, eagerly anticipating the carnage.
That’s why Hughes is treading so carefully. No flowery speeches, no soaring promises, no grand gestures. The day of his swearing in, when reporters asked about his background, Hughes gave a response so aptly capturing his approach to the job it should be carved above the entrance to his office: “I am not unfamiliar with the energy business.”
Not exactly Churchillian. But Winston Churchill only had to win the Second World War, not convince environmentalists that shipping bitumen to the West Coast is a good idea.
That is the biggest challenge facing Hughes, as outlined in Redford’s marching orders to him in June: “Develop new access (e.g., through pipelines and rail) to markets outside the United States.”
The most direct route geographically to Asia is also the most difficult politically.
Convincing British Columbians to accept a bitumen pipeline might yet prove impossible, especially if they’re taking all the risk with no direct reward.
So, during a sit-down interview with Hughes I ask him about the scuttlebutt that Alberta is quietly, and unofficially, thinking about putting up the money to build a bitumen upgrader at Kitimat, B.C., to grease the approval-granting wheels for the Northern Gateway pipeline.
“You know what, there are many creative options that we have to look at,” Hughes says. “At an appropriate time, all ideas are worth considering.”
As far as Hughes is concerned, he is not saying yes but, more tellingly, he is not saying no. A Kitimat upgrader seems to be on the table. That is a big story, a controversial story, just the kind of story Hughes doesn’t want.
Within hours he’s on the phone to offer a clarification. Alberta is absolutely not interested in helping pay for an upgrader. “We wouldn’t do that in Alberta so why would we do that somewhere else?” asks Hughes rhetorically.
It’s the answer he should have given the first time but by being too careful to say anything definitive, to say anything that might cause problems, Hughes was actually courting trouble. Being overly cautious in politics is as dangerous as being overly aggressive. Hughes might be avoiding the deep end but that is no guarantee he’ll stay out of hot water.