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Ted the Terrible downplays oil sands in favour of clean energy

Alberta's new energy minister, Ted Morton, is reaching out to Canada, downplaying the oil sands in favour of new, clean-energy technology

One could be forgiven for thinking Alberta’s new energy minister, Ted Morton, has gone soft. Ted the Terrible, as he’s known in political circles, is not known for his commitment to political niceties.

After engineering a back-room coup that deposed former Alberta premier Ed Stelmach, the one-time front-runner and former finance minister finished a disappointing fourth in the Tory leadership race. But instead of being sidelined in an expected purge, Morton, an unabashed leader of the party’s hawkish right wing, found himself as Alberta’s new energy minister.

Many saw it as a sign of Alberta’s determination to take a tougher stance against critics of its oil and gas industry, particularly its oil sands. But in one of his first public appearances, Morton seemed to reach out to adversaries pushing for a greater focus on carbon capture and storage (CCS), wind power and renewable energy to offset greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions from oil and gas. “Some say we’re doing too much, some say not enough,” he said.

Morton, originally from the US, is an avid big-game hunter and advocate for public access to Crown land – which has comprised the bulk of his previous experience with natural resources. He has been involved in Canadian politics since he became a citizen in 1991, emerging from the Reform movement that produced Canada’s first majority Conservative government in two decades. He points out that he is “the son of a Wyoming Republican and grandson of a Pennsylvania Democrat, and now a servant of the Crown”.

Ideological mentor

Morton is also the ideological mentor of Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper. But despite their personal relationship, Harper and Morton have drifted apart on key issues such as equalisation between provinces and reform of Canada’s senate.

Alberta, traditionally hostile to federal intrusion, now finds itself on the inside of the first Conservative majority government in 20 years – and one headed by one of Morton’s ideological soul mates. Since attempts by the late Pierre Trudeau to impose a national energy programme in the 1980s, anti-federal government politics have been a defining feature of the Alberta landscape.

Now, the desire to bury the hatchet may well represent a defining shift in the political and economic axis of the country. Morton told Petroleum Economist that, for the first time in decades, Alberta is keen to cultivate a co-operative relationship with the federal government. Alberta, it seems, is finally ready to admit it can’t do it alone.

Reactionary steps

Alberta has been defiant, but also sensitive to criticism of oil sands. It is the only jurisdiction in North America that taxes carbon emissions and uses the funds for environmental research. About C$250 million ($247.8 million) has been raised to date.

The province is also one of Canada’s fastest-growing wind-power producers. Morton, who represents a southern Alberta riding, appeared in Calgary on a day when winds were gusting at 100 km an hour in his local district Crowsnest Pass, home to the province’s wind sector.

The provincial authorities have also made significant financial commitments to GHG emissions reduction. More than C$2 billion of public money is being directed to CCS technology at a time when the province is facing the largest budget deficits in two decades. But, after Shell Canada’s Quest CCS project, near Edmonton, became the province’s largest recipient of taxpayer funds, some have complained that it’s a giveaway to big oil companies.

The controversy has affected Morton, who previously oversaw the province’s finances, and he acknowledged it is difficult to keep the balance between maintaining the public accounts and encouraging a healthy industry.

Ironically, his appearance at a clean energy forum in Calgary seemed to downplay oil sands in favour of new, clean-energy technology. In prepared remarks, Morton talked very little about oil and focused mostly on power generation and CCS. Abundant unconventional gas reserves have provided an opportunity to shift from coal, he said.

Oil sands under scrutiny

Nonetheless, it is the oil-sands that gain the most scrutiny. And, in his discussion about oil sands, signs of the old Morton re-emerged. He gave every indication that he’s ready for a fight against what he sees as a well-funded and well-organised environmental lobby. The oil sands have been under attack in both the US and Europe and he agreed that Alberta’s politicians have been caught unawares. But that is about to change.

Morton, who has no ties to the oil and gas industry that could cast doubt on his impartiality, looks set to maintain his firm stance. He knows, too, that Alberta’s economic prosperity lies in winning over critics and expanding markets. It may well be that Ted the Terrible’s soft side will carry the day.

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