Jim Prentice, Age: 57
Hometown: South Porcupine, Ontario
Influential because: Well, he’s Jim Prentice

Jim Prentice enjoys a challenge. The former federal cabinet minister, who served as the minister of Indian affairs and northern development, the minister of industry and the minister of environment between 2006 and 2010, was initially being considered for this list after accepting the job of selling (or, perhaps, saving) Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline. Then, earlier this year, he put his name forward for the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party, a move that required him to renounce his pipeline work. Winning the leadership may not prove to be very difficult for someone whom many party insiders wanted to run for the job. Getting the party re-elected, on the other hand, might be.

It’s an unexpected turn for a man whom most pundits thought would end up contesting the leadership of a different conservative party – the federal one. He’s run twice for it already, losing to Peter McKay in 2003 and dropping out of the race (to reunify the party with the Canadian Alliance) in a campaign won by Stephen Harper in 2004. The issues that he’s most outspoken about, from the environment to Canada’s relationship with aboriginal people and the role that business plays in both, all fall squarely under federal jurisdiction. But with that door seemingly closed for the foreseeable future and one opening in his backyard, Prentice appears to have sacrificed his federal ambitions (no premier has gone on to become prime minister since Sir Charles Tupper did it in 1895) for provincial ones.

His timing, as far as Alberta’s most important industry is concerned, couldn’t be better. It’s not clear that Prentice – or anyone, for that matter – can convince British Columbians to embrace, or at least accept, a project like Northern Gateway. But Douglas Eyford, a Vancouver lawyer and the federal government’s special representative on West Coast energy infrastructure, thinks he’s got as good a chance as anyone. “He understands as well as anybody, I think, the unique relationship between aboriginal groups in British Columbia and the Crown,” Eyford says, “and he’s someone who’s held in high regard by the leaders in this province.”

Even if the leadership race proves to be a coronation, there’s plenty on the line for Prentice. “When you’re on the list of people who are ‘next in line,’ you’ve always got influence just by virtue of being on that list,” says Jim Dinning, a fellow Conservative and former leadership candidate. “But running affects your place on that list. If you’re always on the list and you actually never run, you stay on the list. He’s cashing in his chips here.” Still, Dinning says, his reputation suggests that he’ll be able to turn those chips into something of value. And given where Alberta sits right now, astride key debates about the environment and aboriginal rights that threaten to bottle up its most important export product, the province might turn out to be the biggest winner of all. “In government, he has a track record,” Dinning says. “When you want a job done, give it to Prentice.”