They say politics is not for the faint of heart, and when it comes to Alberta Minister of Energy Pete Guthrie’s experience, they aren’t wrong. First elected as the UCP MLA for Airdrie-Cochrane in April 2019, Guthrie was part of a Jason Kenney-led government intent on reversing much of the damage caused by the previous NDP government. On course to achieve many campaign promises, the government’s plans were derailed in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. What a time to be in government.
Two years of pandemic restrictions threatened to split the UCP party, lead to a dismal leadership review and the resignation of Kenney as leader. The leadership race that ensued was hard fought, with the ascension of Danielle Smith to the Premier’s seat last October. Guthrie was sworn in as the new Energy Minister shortly thereafter.
And now, with the pandemic largely behind them and the party united, Smith, Guthrie and his fellow UCP caucus members are facing re-election in May.
“It’s been a heck of a time to get into the political realm for the first time,” Guthrie chuckles from his office in Edmonton’s legislature building. “We did get a lot done as a government, but we still have a lot more to do. The pandemic really diverted attention from a lot of the great work that our government has done. But I do feel that it’s being recognized, and we’ll win the next election.”
Guthrie, a successful businessman and rancher prior to entering politics, decided to jump into the lion’s pit because he wasn’t happy with the way things were. “As a small business person [circa 2015] I was frustrated,” he recalls. “We had the new NDP government in Alberta, and then Trudeau was elected federally. The oil and gas sector was going through a major price decline. We had provincial and federal regulation and policy being created during a time of recessionary pressures and it was hurting small business.”
Born in Brockville, Ontario, Guthrie’s family moved around a lot when he was child, including to Fort McMurray where his father, who was in the petrochemical industry, worked for Syncrude when Guthrie was 10 years old.
The family moved to Alberta permanently in the early 1980s. Guthrie attended high school in Fort Saskatchewan and completed a chemical engineering degree at the University of Alberta in 1992.
“My first job as an engineer out of university was in Grande Prairie, working for a chemical company in the pulp and paper sector,” Guthrie recalls. He moved into the air gas business after that and spent six years in Vancouver. “It was some great experience working across Western Canada. I also got to work in Brazil, Sweden, Taiwan and India.”
Then in May 2000, Guthrie, his wife and young son moved to Consort, Alberta, to take up farming and ranching. “My wife had lost her younger brother in a farming accident on the family farm,” he explains. “So we made a decision to take two years and go to the ranch. We thought it would be good for our family to bond.”
Two years turned into 10, as Guthrie and his wife ended up buying into the family farming business. They grew it into a major success. “We had a 3,300-head backgrounding feed lot, and 450 cows on top of that,” he says. “After 10 years we sold most of it off. There are still a couple of satellite properties.”
While wrapping up the ranch, Guthrie’s brother-in-law found an opportunity with a Mr. Lube store in Calgary. Guthrie and his wife joined as silent partners. “And before we knew it, it had ballooned out with some other opportunities,” he explains. “So we bought into the business and ended up making a shift from ranching to retail ownership in 2009.”
Guthrie and his wife, Tracy, bought out other family partners a year-and-a-half after opening the store. They ran the business, located in Harvest Hills, for eight years. “We built that store,” he says proudly. “We were one of the most successful stores across Canada. We were, depending upon the month, either the seventh or eighth busiest store in Canada.”
However by 2015, Guthrie was becoming frustrated with the political environment.
“We saw our expense side increasing at the same time that we had declining revenue,” he laments. “I felt like we had a provincial government that was working against us. So that was the driving force for me to start getting involved in politics. As a farmer and rancher, and as a business person, you’re always talking politics or taxation one way or another.”
He and his wife accepted an offer to sell the Mr. Lube business and Guthrie went on to win the UCP nomination for Airdrie-Cochrane in 2018.
Landing the job of Minister of Energy is a proud accomplishment for Guthrie. “It’s going well,” he reflects. “It’s a big file, there’s a lot to learn, but I’m engaging with as many stakeholders as possible to get their feedback on what they feel should first and foremost be on our agenda.”
With the general election only months away, he’s looking at what short-term wins can be had, as well as how to set the province up for mid and long-term success.
“We just went through a seven-year downturn in the oil and gas sector, and it’s a cyclical business, so the concentration on jobs and the economy is always important for this government,” he points out. “We’re looking at ways to stimulate the economy and the energy sector, while doing so with good, strong environmental stewardship. The Alberta oil and gas sector are great stewards, they’re highly technical. We will continue to lead in that area.”
The Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act is a tool Guthrie hopes never to have to use, as he thinks the best thing for all of Canada is to work collaboratively with the federal government. “My encouragement to the federal government is to work with us, work with industry, together,” he implores. “Stay away from the think tanks and work with us to achieve goals. If we can do that, then the Act can just stay in the holster.”
Achieving carbon neutrality is a goal Smith has highlighted for her government, and Guthrie highlights the potential for carbon capture and sequestration in Alberta as one viable means of achieving this goal. “It’s one of the areas that could be a big win for us,” he says. “So far there have been 25 proposals accepted for sequestration hubs in Alberta, and there are two that exist already, as well as the Alberta Carbon Trunk line. Alberta is a leader in this field.”
Further development of Alberta’s critical minerals sector, petrochemical and LNG industries are other areas with great potential, Guthrie notes. “Air Products announced a $1.3 billion project in Alberta’s heartland, ready to go with shovels in the ground next year,” he says happily. “Our government is contributing 10 per cent of that project from our Alberta Petrochemical Incentive Program. That program has garnered a lot of interest.”
Guthrie also highlights the many options his Ministry is looking at regarding the reclamation of orphan wells, a hot-button issue for many. “One of those options is a liability management incentive program, the purpose of which is to get those sites that are greater than 20 years inactive cleaned up. We’re looking at ways to incentivize companies to clean up those sites by providing an opportunity for a royalty credit at some point in the future on new drilling. It’s a win-win: the sites get cleaned up and new jobs get created.”
One important stakeholder group Guthrie is keen to work with are Indigenous peoples and First Nations: “What we hear is that they want to continue working with the Alberta government. Through the Alberta Indigenous Corporation we put forward a billion dollars in loan guarantees to support Indigenous groups in becoming owners in the energy sector and others.” He adds the government’s encouragement for industry to work with First Nations on site rehabilitation and reclamation has been well received.
A man of many hats (including cowboy), Guthrie brings a unique perspective and experience to his role as Alberta’s Energy Minister. If his past is any indication, success is in the cards.