The Strife of Brian
A former logger, Alberta’s official opposition leader, BRIAN JEAN, likes to chop away at the NDP government’s energy policies and proposals with equal enthusiasm. Jean’s introduction to the free market came at an early age. At six years old, along with his sisters, he scooped up and bagged oil sands samples that his parents sold to tourists visiting his hometown of Fort McMurray. He later became an animal trapper and then a lawyer, before serving 10 years as a Member of Parliament in the federal Conservative government of Stephen Harper. He would go on to lobby the prime minister to fund the twinning of Highway 63, the road that eventually served as the sole escape route from Fort McMurray during the May wildfires that consumed his home and others. In 2015, he was elected to the Alberta legislature in his hometown riding and elected the leader of Alberta’s right-wing Wildrose Party after the defection of several party members to the ruling Progressive Conservative government.
When the polls close after Alberta’s next provincial election, Brian Jean would like to see his Wildrose Party in power. And he believes they have the energy—and the energy policies—to do it.
How would you reform the Alberta Energy Regulator?
I would immediately set up a task force with industry leaders and aboriginal and environmental advocates right across the province. Leave nothing off the table, no sacred cows. The goal is to make the process as clear and lean as possible while ensuring all concerns are addressed. Let’s make it the most competitive jurisdiction in the world for oil and gas and also manufacturing. Restoring the Alberta advantage will require both regulatory-burden reduction and tax-burden reduction.
The previous government subsidized carbon capture and storage at Sturgeon refinery and Shell’s Quest project. Would you subsidize CCS for coal-fueled power plants, in the way that the Saskatchewan government does?
When governments pick winners and losers, Albertans lose. If the power companies or other emitters can make CCS work, great—the government needs to ensure there are no barriers. But while I don’t think R&D or other subsidies are a good idea, I also don’t think government should be closing coal down early, stranding assets and not even giving them the option of technological solutions.
What about corporate taxes?
The most important thing is to be pragmatic and responsive to the time. Ultimately our job is to hand Alberta back to Albertans, by reducing tax and regulations. Alberta should have one of the lowest tax rates in the world to attract investment. This doesn’t mean zero tax, just less than our competitors are at, so companies set up shop here. This is somewhat contingent on balancing the budget, but we should get back to 10 percent and maybe look to bring it down closer to eight percent as finances permit.
Are there energy regulations in place today you would like to remove?
Companies will invest in a low regulatory environment. It’s almost unbelievable what you have to do to buy a well—it takes four times as long as it does in North Dakota and Texas. The more you can reduce the regulatory burden the better off everyone is. Even with the lowest tax rates in the world, if there’s too much red tape compared to other places, we will lose a lot of job opportunities.
Would you abolish the carbon tax that was introduced by the previous government and increased by the New Democrats?
Yes. We can’t afford to be out of step with where our competitors are, especially in North America—whether it’s North Dakota, Texas, Saskatchewan, or Pennsylvania, the investors we are competing for are looking at Alberta right now and saying ‘No thanks.’ We have a far more aggressive carbon tax than anywhere else in the world right now. And we do this on a regulatory framework that’s the most advanced in the world. I’ve looked and looked and looked for the application form for a social licence and I’ve never seen one. I think we need to do what the rest of the world’s doing—be competitive. We can do this through technology. We can’t be more aggressive than the rest of the world on climate change or we become non-competitive.
Without carbon pricing or emissions caps, where’s the incentive to deploy new technology?
Well, whenever you can reduce inputs you are saving money. But I didn’t say we would scrap the SGER (Specified Gas Emitters Regulation) program that’s been in place for seven years, I just think the government should take it back to $15/ton and maybe consult with industry to adjust the way it’s done. There is also a lot of talk about a North Americanwide carbon pricing plan, and especially a Canada-wide one. Companies have to think ahead to something like that coming—the point is we shouldn’t be singling out Albertan employers to pay a price they wouldn’t if they took those jobs elsewhere.
How would you promote pipelines?
The industry and the Alberta government have tried taking a calm, fact-based approach and so far it hasn’t worked.
I think the debate heated up significantly over the last eight or nine years, it was lost by the federal and provincial governments. For one, not enough credit has been given to how thorough and legitimate the NEB process is, and the fact that these interprovincial projects are federal, which means there are no provincial or municipal vetoes.
Then there are outside interests— outside of Alberta and Canada—that don’t want to see our oil being extracted for a variety of reasons. It’s either because they are competitors or they are ideologically opposed, but it’s surprising how often those two opposed groups end up on the same campaigns against Canadian oil. I would engage the stakeholders on the ground that are holding pipelines up and resolve these issues with them, and also push for more local engagement in advance before the opponents show up, so regular people are excited about the economic prospects. Through my time in northern Alberta, I discovered that we have a very successful model for consultation and involvement with aboriginal communities. I’ve been involved in this.
Brian Jean, leader of the Alberta Wildrose Party