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Alberta Venture’s Year in Review: Vote for the Top Story of 2013

Here are 13 of the stories that defined Alberta in 2013. Vote for your Top Story and win!

Dec 2, 2013

by Max Fawcett, Michael Ganley, Alix Kemp and Tim Querengesser

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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… No, wait. That’s not quite right.

Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it… Nope, that’s not it either.

History will be kind to us, for we intend to write it… Close enough.

Yes, it’s time for that annual rite of passage, the year in review. And what a year it was, what with a slate of municipal elections, the passing of this province’s most iconic – and controversial – political figure of the last 25 years and a whole host of newsworthy occurrences in the energy sector.

The problem is, we just can’t seem to decide on the Top Story of 2013…

That’s where you come in – please click and read your way through the following stories, select your pick for the Top Story of 2013 from the list and click “Submit.”

The Free Trade deal announced between the European Union and Canada in mid-October was, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper said, “a big win for Canada.” But it might be an even bigger win for Albertans, and in particular the province’s beef producers. That’s because the deal will substantially increase the amount of beef Canadian producers can export to Europe. Since 1997, beef exports had been heavily restricted, limited to 14,950 tonnes and tagged with a 20 per cent duty. But under the terms of the new agreement, that tariff has been lifted, and the quota increased to 70,000 tonnes – a concession that could be worth as much as $600 million a year to beef and veal producers.

The year 2013 won’t go down in history as the year LNG took off in Western Canada. But without the events that transpired this year, that date may never have arrived. First, there was Chevron’s purchase of the minority interests of Encana and EOG Resources in the Kitimat LNG project, one that’s already been approved by the National Energy Board and will, once completed, ship 10 million tonnes of LNG per year to markets in the Far East. And while the project has yet to lock down customers and get them to sign sales contracts, Chevron’s reputation and global reach should make that a far more likely prospect. Then, in the spring, Shell opened the first LNG fuelling station for trucks – a key step towards wider adoption of LNG as a transportation fuel – in the country at a Flying J truck stop in Calgary.

You might say the lawsuits launched by the Beaver Lake Cree and Fort McKay First Nations in Alberta this year have zero chance of success. But you might also consider that both suits focus on the cumulative effects that multiple oil sands developments have on their constitutionally protected treaty rights. That Fort McKay is now pushing back against an industry it has long embraced also signals an important shift. “We have a real concern with respect to what’s left for our people to eat, and we have to address that,” Fort McKay Chief Jim Boucher told Alberta Venture in August. “We’re completely surrounded by oil sands development.” And so, while they may not win in court, Alberta’s First Nations have made it clear that they’re able – and willing – to draw a line in the oil sands. Whether industry is willing to cross it, and the consequences associated with doing so, remains to be seen.

Jarome Iginla played 1,273 games for the Calgary Flames. He scored 553 goals and added 591 assists. He is the all-time franchise leader in goals, points and games played (in nine of his 16 regular seasons, he played all 82 games). He was the team captain for nine seasons, the face of the franchise for most of his career and is one of the nicest guys on the planet. And now he’s a Boston Bruin.

Coming the other way (east to west, that is) is Dallas Eakins, the new coach of the Edmonton Oilers. Eakins had an undistinguished NHL career (zero goals and nine assists in 120 games spread between eight teams) and has had an undistinguished start to his NHL coaching career, but his four years as coach of the Toronto Marlies were successful. He led the team to the AHL finals two years ago and to the second round of the playoffs last year. Oilers fans can only hope he can turn things around.

As trial balloons go, it was one of the braver ones that’s been sent out by an Alberta politician in some time. In early April, newly appointed Environment Minister Diana McQueen confirmed that she was working with federal counterpart Peter Kent on a new climate change policy. She stressed that the talks were very preliminary in nature and that “revised targets have not yet been finalized,” but one possible figure –a so-called “40/40 approach” – caught everyone (including her boss, it seems) by surprise. Redford quickly poured water on the idea, which would require emitters to reduce per-barrel emissions by 40 per cent and increase the province’s existing price on carbon for those who don’t meet the target from $15 per tonne to $40. The proposal was predictably unpopular among industry representatives and the government’s political opponents, but it wasn’t quite disastrous enough to prevent it from being resurrected in the near future as Alberta tries to balance its commitment to the energy sector with its quest to improve its global reputation.

Ralph Klein had his irascible side, sure, and often treated politics as a blood sport and his opponents as enemies, but the outpouring of affection and remembrance on his passing in March was honest and heartfelt, a tribute to a man of humble beginnings who put an indelible stamp on Alberta and the nation. King Ralph, who reigned as mayor of Calgary for eight years and as premier of Alberta for 14, will be remembered as much for eliminating the province’s deficit and debt as he will for his impolitic remarks and his folksy populism.

Stephen Mandel
Mayor of Edmonton (2004-2013)
Mandel may have teased Edmontonians with a non-retirement press conference earlier this year, but he did, in fact, step aside in this year’s election. He’s left his mark on the city, particularly its downtown core, where he helped spearhead the construction of the new Art Gallery of Alberta building, the closure of the downtown airport, and two critical deals that will see a new hockey arena and the future home of the Royal Alberta Museum built there. If the city’s downtown revitalization truly begins to take root, it will have a lot to do with Stephen Mandel.

Morris Flewwelling
Mayor of Red Deer (2004-2013)
Morris Flewwelling’s 20-plus year career in public office had to end at some point, but boy, what a ride it was. In addition to serving four terms as an alderman and three as the mayor of Red Deer, Flewwelling piled up an Alberta Centennial Medal, a Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal and a Heritage Canada Foundation Lieutenant Governor’s Award, served on dozens of boards and helped with hundreds of organizations in the community. Red Deer will move on, but it won’t be the same without him in office.

Rajko Dodic
Mayor of Lethbridge (2010-2013)
Rajko Dodic is a classic Canadian success story. After emigrating from Slovenia with his parents, he arrived in Lethbridge on Canada Day (or, as it was known then, Dominion Day) in 1957. Since then, he’s built a life in Lethbridge, graduating from the University of Lethbridge before getting his law degree at the University of Alberta and returning home to practise law. He was elected as alderman twice before moving to the mayor’s chair 2010.

Emile Blokland
Mayor of High River (2010-2013)
Blokland has been involved in municipal politics in this province for more than two decades, starting off as a councillor for the Town of Stettler from 1986 to 1992 before getting elected to High River Council in 2007 and as the town’s mayor in 2010. And while Blokland is stepping down from the position in this year’s race, he’s not done serving the people of his community: He’s running to serve again as a councillor.

Truper McBride
Mayor of Cochrane (2004-2013)
Truper McBride has been serving the public since he was 23 – yes, 23 – years old, but after 12 years in municipal politics and two terms as mayor, he’s decided to hang up his hat. And while he plans to move into the private sector, his name will always be associated with public life in Cochrane – he was one of the youngest elected officials in Canada when he became a councillor in 2001, and became one of the youngest mayors when he unseated incumbent Ken Bech in 2007.

In June, floods swept through southern Alberta, wreaking havoc and demonstrating to even the most strident skeptic that climate change is indeed something to be worried about. All told, flood damages may top $6 billion, 90,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes and the flooding topped the ice storms in Quebec as the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history.

The year was the best and worst of times for rail, and that’s largely thanks to the ongoing bottlenecks associated with oil pipelines. In July, a Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway train transporting North Dakota oil derailed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. The accident killed 47 and prompted many to ask if rail could safely move ever more oil while companies continue to wait on proposed pipelines. Two Canadian Pacific accidents only added to the worries: In July, CP sent a train carrying flammable diluent over a Calgary bridge weakened by flooding. The bridge buckled, leaving the tanker cars stranded over the Bow River for a day. Then in September, a CP train, again transporting diluent, saw eight cars derail beside a Calgary neighbourhood, forcing evacuations.

But despite the accidents, rail’s role as the energy industry’s Plan B is only set to grow in 2014, says Canaccord Genuity analyst Phil Skolnick. That’s because a backlog in tanker cars and handling facilities is about to be cleared, and rail’s main disadvantage to oil pipelines – price – is shrinking thanks to increased offloading efficiencies.

Capacity is growing, too. In a note to investors, Skolnick said the amount of oil currently being transported by rail – approximately 130,000 barrels per day – could quickly grow to rival the 850,000 barrels per day that the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would move. The real question, then, is whether they can do that safely.

The Sturgeon Refinery is all about firsts. The $5.7-billion project, which broke ground in September near Fort Saskatchewan and is a joint venture between North West Upgrading and Canadian Natural Resources, will be the first such project completed in Canada in nearly 30 years, the first with carbon capture and storage technology, and the first linked to the province’s bitumen royalty-in-kind (BRIK) program.

It’s no secret why it’s taken so long, though. There’s already plenty of refinery capacity in North America, and that glut, combined with the costs (and uncertainties) associated with building a new project has deterred numerous energy producers from getting into the game. But with the help of the Alberta government, in the form of a guaranteed 37,500 barrels per day of bitumen from BRIK, the Sturgeon refinery will challenge the notion that new refineries can’t make money in North America.

It may well do that, too. CNRL expects to profit from the ability to turn raw bitumen into diesel, which fetches big margins in Western Canada. The Alberta government stands to generate more in royalties: according to government spokespeople, if it were in place now it would add $500 million to the province’s revenues for fiscal 2013. In the end, though, only time will tell whether it becomes proof that new refineries are viable in Alberta or demonstrates that the critics were right all along.

In May, Edmonton’s city council finally approved the controversial deal to build a new arena for Daryl Katz and the Edmonton Oilers. After six years of wrangling, one implied threat to move the team to Seattle and a subsequent full-page apology in the Edmonton Journal, the final deal has the city putting up most of the $604.5-million bill, with the Katz Group contributing $269.3 million over 35 years and $17.2 million in upfront cash. Edmontonians remain divided. That was evident during October’s mayoral race as the candidates bickered over their support (or perceived lack of it) for the deal.

It’s been a big year for the Bitcoin, which went from being a curiosity among geeks to a mainstream phenomenon. More importantly, it increased in value tenfold, earning both popular attention among financial analysts and the undying affection of anyone who happened to buy it under $15 (as of late September, it was worth more than $150). But the best might still be ahead because as Bitcoins continue to gain traction with consumers and retailers (in August, Edmonton’s Remedy Café became the first brick-and-mortar store to accept it as payment), it may yet fulfill its promise as an alternative to currency rather than merely being a speculative (and volatile) investment.

In 2012, Premier Alison Redford ran on a platform of two per cent annual budget increases to the province’s post-secondary institutions. But in March, the provincial budget included a 7.3 per cent cut to post-secondary budgets. Universities have struggled to meet that target. Most have cut programs. The University of Alberta announced 121 voluntary buyouts and the University of Calgary accepted 200 fewer students into its arts programs. Mount Royal University introduced a new $120 student fee to try to increase its revenue. Then in November 2013, Thomas Lukaszuk announced the government had “liberated” $50 million and partially reversed its cuts.

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