(Reuters) - Alberta’s ruling Conservative party has named Alison Redford, a former human rights lawyer, as the next premier of the province that is seeking to expand markets for its oil sands while fending off criticism from international environmental groups.
Redford won by a narrow margin in the early morning hours on Sunday. She beat out Gary Mar, a former health minister, and Doug Horner, who had been deputy premier.
Once sworn in, the 46-year-old former provincial justice minister will become the fifth Conservative premier in the party’s four-decade dynasty in Alberta. She is due to call an election in the western province of 3.5 million people some time next year.
Redford was viewed by many as sitting closer to the center of the political spectrum than rivals. She campaigned partly on a platform of greater support for education and health care.
“With this leadership process we have renewed our party ... we have voted for change,” she told party faithful after the victory.
Redford’s early policy decisions will be closely watched by the energy industry. Her campaign platform included a pledge that “the exploration and production of hydrocarbons in Alberta will follow sustainable pathways.”
Alberta is known for its oil sands, the third-largest crude reserve in the world and a major source of energy for the United States. But the province has come under increasing criticism for the impact of development on the environment and what green groups see as lax oversight.
Despite the lucrative resource sector, Alberta ran up a multibillion-dollar budget deficit during the financial crisis, much to the anger of those on the right of the party. The current plan is to erase the shortfall by 2013.
Redford takes over from Ed Stelmach, a rural politician who had a rocky relationship with the powerful energy industry, especially after an ill-fated attempt at raising royalty rates.
Stelmach announced this year he was stepping down despite having earlier led his Conservative party to the province’s largest-ever majority in the legislature.
The Conservative party has seen some of its supporters defect to the upstart Wildrose Alliance Party, which is pushing for lower taxes, less public spending and regulations that would give oil companies and other businesses a freer hand.
With additional reporting by Jeffrey Jones in Calgary; Editing by Vicki Allen