Building Better Infrastructure in Communities Across Canada: An Interview with the Honourable Amarjeet Sohi

The Hounarable Amarjeet Sohi, Minister of Infrastructure. Image courtesy office of Minister Sohi’s office.

The Hounarable Amarjeet Sohi, Minister of Infrastructure. Image courtesy office of Minister Sohi’s office.

Canada’s complex infrastructure system allows us to move people, goods and services with ease. It delivers clean drinking water to our homes, creates space for leisure and activities, and provides Canadians with safe and reliable energy services to heat and power our homes, businesses and institutions. The infrastructure that makes up our country has provided Canada with some of the highest standards of living worldwide. But the intricacy of our systems must be maintained and improved so that we can continue to benefit from these services. The Government of Canada is working to build better infrastructure in communities across Canada. These projects will contribute to the country’s long-term economic growth, support the creation of jobs and help lower emissions. Earlier this summer I had the opportunity to speak with the Honourable Amarjeet Sohi, Minister of Infrastructure Canada about the government’s priorities around this file and how the natural gas delivery industry can help to achieve this goal. The following are the highlights of this conversation.

Timothy Egan: Innovation is a big priority for your government and for our industry. In fact, we are working together on several fronts now, particularly with your colleague Minister Carr and his department. First and foremost we are an infrastructure industry with almost 500,000 kilometers of underground infrastructure across the country that we are constantly upgrading. What are the opportunities for us to work more closely with your department on the broader infrastructure agenda?

Minister Sohi: The emphasis that we have put on infrastructure investment is building and re-building community based municipal and provincial infrastructure given how critical it is for economic growth and how it ties into our efforts to build a strong economy and build a strong middle class, as well as providing opportunities for those Canadians who want to be part of the middle class. I think that’s where your efforts, where what you do, aligns with government’s work. The other thing is when we talk about innovation, in my mind, it’s about looking for new ways to solve old problems, or creating conditions where your work force or people who work with other companies or in other departments feel that they can think innovatively, that they can think outside the box, and that they can look at creative solutions to problems. I would say industry has been leading that, and now government is catching up. For example, the government’s Smart Cities Challenge and Canada Infrastructure Bank are two innovative tools where we see technology being used to optimize the existing infrastructure or build new infrastructure to support growth.

“The emphasis that we have put on infrastructure investment is building and re-building community based municipal and provincial infrastructure given how critical it is for economic growth.”

“The emphasis that we have put on infrastructure investment is building and re-building community based municipal and provincial infrastructure given how critical it is for economic growth.”

Timothy Egan: Innovation is front and center for our industry and one of the biggest points that we like to emphasize is that our infrastructure is particularly affordable and part of keeping it that way is by keeping the energy service we provide affordable and driving innovation forward as much as we can.  The challenge we have on innovation with infrastructure, is that innovation makes people think about things happening fast and infrastructure investments are long term. What more can we do to help keep Canada’s infrastructure cost effective with long-term financing but still be on the cutting edge?

Minister Sohi: One thing that we are doing that I thought was lacking when we took over the infrastructure portfolio was our vision for long term planning. Also thinking about projects and their whole lifecycle, not just the construction phase but also how it will operate later on.  In thinking about that, we created a fund that is managed by the Canadian Federation of Municipalities that allows municipalities to do better asset management and also do long-term planning. Because you’re absolutely right, when you’re talking about large infrastructure projects, it takes a number of years to design and plan them, then takes a number of years to actually build them. So if you can bring in the right people at the start of the planning, then you have all those people working together and looking at the whole project as a lifecycle project, not just segments of the project. I think that kind of figure is important and I think there are opportunities for governments to learn from the private sector on that.  Also, I think it ends up building better infrastructure for Canadians and also ends up being more cost effective when you can align yourself from point A all the way to the end of the cycle.

Timothy Egan: You obviously understand municipal politics very well because of your experience. Direct municipal engagement has always been a priority for our member companies. Your government has been pretty clear in its interest in the Canada Infrastructure Bank and moving that forward. Could you give us a little more insight into the goals of the Bank, how it will operate and how we might participate in it?

Minister Sohi: The reason we created the Canada Infrastructure Bank was to make sure that we are building the necessary infrastructure that our communities need.  We wanted to add another tool to support important projects that are too large for the public sector to undertake or where the private sector is not interested because they don’t see a return on their investment. The Bank is an avenue for those two sectors to collaborate. In other words, by bringing in institutional investors, private investors and government we can have an equity stake in the project to de-risk some of the threats that the private sector will face and actually get those infrastructure projects built.  I think that’s the goal of the Bank – to mobilize private capital and to build more public infrastructure that is in the public interest.  It could also be an innovative project that is necessary from a public interest point of view, but is unable to be accomplished because of the nature of that particular project. If you see opportunities for us to work together, we will be open to that.

“The Bank is an avenue for the private and public sector to collaborate.”

“The Bank is an avenue for the private and public sector to collaborate.”

Timothy Egan: One of the things we started to look at is the idea of an energy infrastructure map showing the standard infrastructure we provide which is pipes to communities like the city of Edmonton and other Alberta cities that you know well. But beyond that infrastructure we are looking at marine, and rail, and remote communities and how natural gas and our infrastructure can be servicing all of those sectors. In thinking about that sort of integrated approach, would you agree this fits with your thinking on the Canada Infrastructure Bank?

Minister Sohi: We are creating the right conditions where industry and the private sector can actually approach the bank on projects they think might be viable through this avenue. I think the approach will be very flexible, where unsolicited proposals can be evaluated and ideas can be explored by the Bank. It will be an independent organization obviously from the government.  It’s a crown corporation run by a Board of Directors and a CEO, making its own decisions. But what we will do as a government is give an early signal to the Bank that if a project is brought to our attention or the Banks attention, and is in the public interest, then the government will be willing to partner.

Timothy Egan: What would the role of the provinces be in these conversations? If we were interested in engaging with the Bank, are we going to be stronger if we come in with municipal support and provincial support?

Minister Sohi: It will depend on the nature of the project. If a project requires a municipal component or provincial participation, then definitely we will work with those entities.  My department has a very strong relationship with municipalities and provinces. They are the ones who own 95 per cent of the infrastructure and they are the ones that may end up identifying projects that could be undertaken by the Bank. We encourage strong collaboration among all orders of government and private sector. I think the bank will be able to do that, however, I think the actual arrangement will differ from project to project.

Timothy Egan: Minister, picking up on the innovation theme again, one focus for your government has been the idea of super clusters. We are a network of distribution entities, we are regulated entities, and we are accountable to our regulators in each jurisdiction. So the possibility of us bringing significant resources forward for a super cluster is limited.  That said, innovation is a huge priority.  We have created a natural gas innovation fund and have invested in almost 30 small companies and have leveraged over $30 million in a variety of innovations that have significantly reduced emissions, improved efficiency and delivered value.  Is there a way for us to tie into the super cluster conversation without necessarily bringing big dollars to the table? Do you have any advice on that for us?

Minister Sohi: Minister Bains is managing that portfolio, and I understand they have issued a process where the private sector and municipalities can engage on ideas, can discuss what is a better fit in specific regions and allow for collaboration.  That said, I think there are opportunities. I think there are a lot of opportunities for your industry to work with us on green infrastructure. We are putting a lot of resources into clean water, into waste water, into green energy and into new technologies to encourage resource conservation. We also see the challenge around making existing infrastructure more resilient, particularly infrastructure impacted by thawing and shifting ground.

Timothy Egan: Well we are quite keen to do that. We are in conversation with a variety of cities about waste water treatment facilities and recovering methane from them and reinjecting that methane into the natural gas delivery system as renewable natural gas (RNG). It came out of an Alberta report, that we can meet almost 50 per cent of our domestic natural gas needs with RNG. There’s some investments in companies like G4 Insights, an Alberta company that are leaders on this globally, so we’re quite excited about that. What do you think of this opportunity?

Minister Sohi: In my own city of Edmonton, the city is working with NRCan to turn garbage into biogas. There’s a lot of opportunities where government can work with private sectors to facilitate that kind of partnership.

Timothy Egan: Any last thoughts?

Minister Sohi: What I can add is the more we can work together, the more we can deliver for Canadians. At the end of the day our government’s goal is to build strong communities. And we can do that if all segments of the community are working together, and that’s what we want to foster.  That’s the kind of philosophy we follow in my department. At the end of the day we are here to serve Canadians.