Never mind new pipeline minister Amarjeet Sohi, let’s keep our eye on his chief of staff

Amerjeet Sohi.

Amarjeet Sohi, new federal natural resources minister from Edmonton

Zoe Caron formerly worked under Gerry Butts in WWF Canada, is prominent environmentalist

Canada has a new minister responsible for energy infrastructure – read, pipelines – and Edmonton MP Amarjeet Sohi’s marching orders from the Prime Minister are to get the Trans Mountain Expansion project built. That said, Albertans need to pay close attention to his chief of staff, a holdover from the former minister, according to political scientist Keith Brownsey.

Amarjeet Sohi
Prof. Keith Brownsey.

“There are two important jobs in a minister’s office. The first is the deputy, that’s the person who’s going to bring you all the information from the department,” the Mount Royal University professor said in an interview.

“The second is the chief of staff, who would have been appointed by the Prime Minister’s Office or at the very least approved by the PMO.”

When now former natural resources minister Jim Carr was appointed after the Liberal election win in 2015, former oil and gas executive Janet Annesley became the chief of staff, the person responsible for sheparding big projects through the labyrinth of the federal government.

“Annesley was by all accounts very good at her job,” said Brown. “As someone familiar with the oil and gas industry, it appears she was an able advocate for the pipeline files with other relevant departments, like environment.”

Annesley declined to be interviewed for this column.

Amarjeet Sohi
Janet Annesley, former chief of staff to natural resources minister.

When she left Carr’s office in May, 2017 she was replaced by prominent environmentalist Zoe Caron – co-author of Global Warming for Dummies with Green Party leader Elizabeth May – who had been toiling in the PMO advising Gerry Butts, her former boss at World Wildlife Fund Canada.

“Next up: Putting into practice what it means for the environment and the economy to go hand-in-hand,” Caron wrote on Facebook after her appointment, as reported by the National Observer. “From a Canadian Energy Strategy to modernizing the National Energy Board to real action on climate change, better is always possible.”

It wasn’t long after Caron joined Carr’s office that the pipeline file ran into serious trouble, especially after John Horgan and the NDP formed government in British Columbia that summer.

Not only had the NDP campaigned hard against Trans Montain Expansion, but they came to power in a minority government supported by Andrew Weaver and the BC Green Party, who extracted a promise to fight the Kinder Morgan project “with every tool in the toolbox.”

Amarjeet Sohi
Zoe Caron, current chief of staff to natural resources minister.

From that point until the Canadian government agreed to buy most of the Kinder Morgan Canada assets for $4.5 billion in late May, a full year later, Carr’s office appeared at best to be treading water on TMX rather than actively seeking a resolution to BC’s obstruction of the project, says Brownsey.

“There was a big mistake made. This is without question in Western Canada the most important issue today,” he said. “They’re going to be under a lot of pressure to get this done, and quickly.”

Carr’s office confirmed to Energi News Friday that Caron will be staying on as chief of staff under Sohi.

This isn’t great news for Alberta given her performance over the past year, said Brownsey: “I’m not sure it’s the best decision at this point.”

But given the commitment from the Prime Minister – Sohi “will oversee important pipeline projects, including the completion of the Trans Mountain Expansion Project,” he said Wednesday – perhaps continuity for the new minister was the most important consideration, Brownsey says.

Amarjeet Sohi
Prof. Duane Bratt, Mount Royal University.

Prof. Duane Bratt, also in the Mount Royal political science dept., says Sohi has his marching orders from the PMO.

“It was important that an Albertan be named Minister. Just another move to show Albertans that the government is committed to TMX,” he said in an email.

“And Sohi was the logical choice. He has good connections with Alberta government.”

Premier Rachel Notley was pleased with Sohi’s appointment, telling reporters at the premiers conference in New Brunswick Wednesday morning, as reported by Postmedia, that we’re “very pleased to have a representative from Alberta who will be sitting at the cabinet table representing the interests of the energy industry. We think ultimately it’s good news.”

Industry is optimistic the Trudeau government is now firmly comitted to building Trans Mountain Expansion.

“We were for a long time very vocal about how important it would be for the federal government to act decisively and quickly to fortify Kinder Morgan’s project. Ultimately, they moved at a pace slower than we were encouraging them, but they did commit to getting the project done,” Tim McMillan, CEO of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said in an interview. 

“With that, I think that they have been definitive.”

Amarjeet Sohi
Tim McMillan, Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

But McMillan also noted that industry has a laundry list of concerns – from significant changes to the environmental assessment act (Bill C69) to upcoming climate policy – beyond the 590,000 b/d pipeline from Edmonton to Burnaby on the West Coast.

He says CAPP has a good relationship with the minister and believes the cabinet shuffle is “an opportunity for us to take some of these very serious issues and continue to work to an outcome that works for all Canadians.”

We’ll see. The federal department most responsible for energy issues critical to Alberta now has a new homegrown minister saddled with a chief of staff who, at best, isn’t enthusiastic about advancing the interests of oil and gas producers.

Or the Notley government’s energy policies, such as enabling up to 2 million b/d of oil sands crude oil supply by the mid-2030s. Albertans can assume that Caron will be under considerable pressure from the Canadian environmental community to ensure that expansion is hindered or halted.

If Trans Mountain Expansion completion is a given, then Sohi’s performance should be judged on how well he handles the other energy files on his desk.

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