Mixed reactions as Edmonton's Amarjeet Sohi appointed to pipeline portfolio

A cabinet shuffle that moved an Edmonton MP into the role of federal Natural Resources minister has put the controversial Trans Mountain pipeline expansion into the lap of an Alberta politician.

Notley calls it good news, but industry, political pundits say Trudeau looking ahead to next election

Amarjeet Sohi stands with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Governor General Julie Payette after being sworn in as Minister of Natural Resources at Rideau Hall in Ottawa Wednesday. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

A cabinet shuffle that moved an Edmonton MP into the role of federal Natural Resources minister has put the controversial Trans Mountain pipeline expansion into the lap of an Alberta politician.

Early Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unveiled his pre-election cabinet in a shuffle designed to showcase new faces and address increasingly troublesome files.

Among the moves, Edmonton's Amarjeet Sohi takes over natural resources from Jim Carr, who was moved into the international trade portfolio.

After the swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall, Sohi acknowledged that Trans Mountain will be a priority and reiterated the Liberal government's commitment to getting the expanded pipeline built.

"We need to make sure that we're building this pipeline to get our resources to international, non-U.S. market. The $15 billion that we lose every year because we get a discount our oil, we need to change that," Sohi said.

"It will be built …  that's the commitment that we made to Canadians."

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley called Sohi's move into the portfolio good news for Alberta, but stressed that the provincial government won't be letting up on its campaign.

"We are going to continue our work ... advocating for our energy industry in a multiplicity of forums because people need to hear about it across the board," Notley said from New Brunswick, where she is attending Council of the Federation meetings.

"Certainly, we expect that Minister Sohi will be an ally in that work."

A spokesperson for an oil and gas industry lobby group said Trudeau's decision to move Sohi into the role smacks of political opportunism and notes that Sohi will barely have time to get familiar with the players before an election is called.

"In these portfolios, it takes you six months to meet everyone you need to meet," said Gary Leach, executive director of the Explorers and Producers Association of Canada.

"Six months from now, they'll already be into planning for the next election. To me, it's largely being driven more by election planning considerations for the Liberal Party's fortunes in Alberta."

Ian Brodie, a political scientist at the University of Calgary, is equally skeptical about the motivation for Sohi's appointment.

Premier Rachel Notley, in New Brunswick for the Council of the Federation meetings, called the appointment of Edmonton MP Amarjeet Sohi as federal Natural Resources minister "good news" for Alberta. (CBC News)

Brodie said the writing was on the wall three months ago when Bill Morneau — and not departing natural resources minister Jim Carr — was given the responsibility to negotiate the TransMountain Pipeline purchase.

It shows the pipeline construction is seen as a weak point leading up to the federal election, Brodie added.

"They put somebody from Alberta as the public face, they've got some seats to preserve in Edmonton they think are at risk over the perception they haven't done enough on the pipeline."

The federal government has agreed to buy the Alberta-to-British-Columbia line this spring for $4.5 billion from the U.S. company Kinder Morgan. Notley has said Alberta would make up to $2 billion available, if necessary, to keep the project going.

Kinder Morgan had threatened to walk away from a planned expansion to the line because of resistance from the B.C. government.

Construction on the expansion is on track to begin this month, Notley said recently. Trans Mountain would triple the amount of Alberta crude flowing to the B.C. Lower Mainland.

On Wednesday, Sohi said that his Alberta background doesn't create a conflict of interest as he deals with the hotly debated project, which is the subject of ongoing protests in British Columbia.

"Alberta has contributed significantly to the Canadian economy because of the wealth of the natural resources that Alberta is blessed with," he said.

"My responsibility is to serve the interests of Canadians, which also includes the interests of Albertans, and I will do my best to do so." 

With files from The Canadian Press and CBC Calgary