CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Alberta’s premier, facing an onslaught of criticism over his handling of the oil-rich Canadian province’s finances and energy policy, replaced the ministers in charge of those departments on Wednesday to try to win back support from conservative voters.
Premier Ed Stelmach’s cabinet shuffle had been expected as his Progressive Conservative party government has suffered dwindling support in the province that is among the largest foreign suppliers of oil and gas to the United States.
Stelmach said the changes were necessary as economic conditions have changed dramatically in the last 12 months.
“In order for us to respond, we require a new focus and we also require a new team with expertise and experience,” he told reporters.
But voters in the province of 3.5 million people have become increasingly disgruntled after he ran Alberta’s first deficit in more than a decade. Meanwhile, his relations with the powerful energy industry have worsened and popular support for the party has been shifting to the fledgling, further right-of-center, Wildrose Alliance.
Among key changes, Ted Morton, who was minister of sustainable resource development, becomes finance minister, replacing Iris Evans. Morton is seen as one of the government’s most socially conservative members.
Ron Liepert, who was health minister, becomes minister of energy, replacing Mel Knight. Liepert is a onetime telecom executive and public relations consultant.
Stelmach and Knight have faced years of attacks from the oil industry for high-profile changes to the energy royalty structure, then frequent tinkering to try to stave off a huge drop in drilling.
The premier said he realized that market conditions have changed, especially in the natural gas industry, where the development of shale gas in the United States and British Columbia has led to forecasts of booming supplies and low prices.
The government had begun a review of its competitiveness among energy jurisdictions, which points to more changes in the fiscal regime.
“We have to move the industry toward unconventional gas. Shale gas requires new investment. We’re partners with the industry,” Stelmach said. “We own the resource but they’re the ones who put up all the critical dollars and those dollars are at risk unless you have a very good competitiveness position.”
After winning one of the largest majorities in Alberta in 2008, Stelmach has struggled to fend off critics attacking his fiscal record. Under Stelmach, the province’s long streak of multibillion-dollar budget surpluses ended. He blamed the recession and weak oil and gas prices.
The government aims to be back in the black within three years. He said on Wednesday he plans to announce his next budget on February 9.
Wildrose Alliance leader Danielle Smith said the cabinet remains packed with party loyalists and the shuffle will not change the government’s course.
The Conservative party has been in power in Alberta since 1971, making it one of North America’s oldest political dynasties.
Reporting by Jeffrey Jones; editing by Peter Galloway/Marguerita Choy