OTTAWA - Former federal environment minister Jim Prentice hasn't yet formally announced his intention to seek Alberta's premiership, but he's already attracted a backhanded endorsement from a tough oil and gas opponent next door.
Stewart Phillip, the grand chief of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, said he's been "eye-to-eyeball" with Prentice in negotiations in the past and respects the willingness of the former land claims negotiator to hear his opponents' point of view.
"I think Mr. Prentice is an intelligent, perceptive man. He deeply considers the landscape," Phillip said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
The landscape that Prentice, currently a senior executive with CIBC, has been considering of late is the bitterly divided gulf between opponents and proponents of the Northern Gateway project, a proposed pipeline from Alberta's oilsands to the northern B.C. coast.
Prentice was hired two months ago by Enbridge to negotiate the pipeline with First Nations. The move came very late in a long regulatory process that now has the project awaiting approval from Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative cabinet, of which Prentice was once a member.
With his pipeline peace mission incomplete, Prentice has signalled he plans to jump into the leadership race for Alberta's Progressive Conservatives, a job that comes ready-made with the premiership when the race concludes in September.
Notwithstanding his reputation as a skilled negotiator with experience in both First Nations and environmental files, Prentice has made no headway on Northern Gateway, said Phillip.
"My sense is at the outset he was set with the unenviable task of resuscitating a dead horse," said the chief.
Prentice gave it a good beating, Phillip added, "but dead is dead."
"I think he underestimated the deeply entrenched opposition to Enbridge's Northern Gateway proposal."
But Phillip said the process may help Prentice bring some understanding and creative solutions to the growing energy impasse in the country.
"There's got to be better, more creative solutions than simply pumping heavy oil sludge from the tar sands to the West Coast. There's got to be some deeper thinking with respect to that," he said.
"Who knows? Maybe he will look toward other solutions."
Prentice's pending official campaign launch may already be influencing Alberta environmental policy.
Multiple sources suggest provincial and federal civil servants have agreed on new oil and gas regulations to replace the current provincial carbon levy, which expires in September.
The province, according to sources, has agreed to a "double-double" formula that would see the current $15-per-tonne levy on large emitters who fail to reduce emissions intensity by 12 per cent doubled to a charge of $30 per tonne and reductions of 24 per cent.
But while such an announcement was said to be "imminent," a provincial source said Prentice's entry into the leadership race will likely push off any major news until September.
"You're not going to have an interim premier (Dave Hancock) make a pretty significant policy development with respect to the Sept. 1 provincial regs," said the source, who was not authorized to speak for the government.
It is more likely the province will simply roll over the current regime for an interim period, since it must be replaced before it expires Sept. 1.
The case for delay is bolstered by the entry of a clear front-runner like Prentice who has an environmentalist brand to his public appeal, said the source, and may want to put his personal stamp on the decision.
The Prime Minister's Office confirmed Harper met with Hancock on Monday in Ottawa, where the two discussed a range of issues — including energy.
A Prentice spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Ed Whittingham, the Alberta-based executive director of the Pembina Institute, said Prentice did good work on conservation issues while in the Harper cabinet but failed to implement Harper's long-promised regulations on Canada's oil and gas sector.
"But I think in Jim's case you could say it wasn't for a lack of effort or lack of trying," Whittingham said in an interview.
"I think he genuinely gets that good environmental management is part and parcel of good energy business. I would hope that were he to become premier, he would continue to push for that."
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