Aggressive climate strategy gives Alberta – and Notley – leverage to cut political deals with Obama, Eastern premiers

The National Post’s Jen Gerson, echoing far too many Albertans, says the province’s new climate strategy is just an expensive PR strategy. Fortunately for Alberta, she’s wrong.

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Jen Gerson, Post Media journalist. Photo: Jen Gerson/LinkedIn.

“The proposal is largely an exercise in public relations, a bid to buy moral authority at a high cost to Alberta and its industries,” she writes.

Ah, no. The plan developed by UofA prof. Andrew Leach and his Climate Change Advisory Panel, – and wholeheartedly adopted by Rachel Notley’s NDP government – is not a PR strategy. In any sense. Whatsoever.

The new Alberta climate change strategy is – over and above the intended benefits of decarbonizing the provincial economy – about cutting a deal with the Americans and Eastern Canada for market access and energy infrastructure.

The argument goes something like this: When American President Barack Obama rejected TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline proposal, he sent a very loud message to the two sides in the climate change debate. To wit, that the climate activists like Bill McKibben and the Sierra Club had won and the climate skeptics/deniers like Stephen Harper and most Alberta oil and gas executives had lost.

This put Rachel Notley in a political pickle. What was her next move?

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Premier Rachel Notley, at podium, announcing new Alberta climate strategy.

Lobby harder? Washington politicos and bureaucrats were already fleeing at the mere mention Canadian and Alberta politicians in the building, for fear of being harangued one more time.

Buy millions of dollars of advertising in Washington media? Polls already showed American voters favored approving Keystone XL, clearly public support wasn’t the issue.

Ask newly elected Justin Trudeau to start a trade war with the United States?

What?

Gerson, to her credit, admits Alberta had pretty much run out of options: “If it can’t adjust to accommodate public opinion, it will  find itself shut out of oil markets. That would be a far worse outcome than a carbon tax or an emissions cap.”

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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

But the adjustment Gerson refers to is not public relations, it’s the first move in a high stakes political chess game that’s all about climate change and energy.

Three months ago I predicted on 630 CHED’s Ryan Jespersen show that Canadian premiers agreeing to a national energy strategy was the necessary condition, the political framework, for a deal between Alberta and other provinces that would trade oil sands GHG reductions and the end of coal in exchange for political support for the Energy East pipeline.

And I also opined that the same Alberta concessions might be the basis for a political deal with the Americans.

On Sunday, Notley set the table for those deals.

She’s already done a good job building bridges with her Eastern counterparts, who will have to admit at some point that their provinces have a vested interest in Alberta continuing to churn out jobs, business opportunities, and equalization payments. Now they can stare down their eco-activists and point out what a leader Alberta is on climate change.

We saw Obama and Trudeau having a chummy chat at the APEC Summit in Manila last week, with the President publicly thanking the Prime Minister for joining Team Obama, Climate Change Edition. Expect Notley to jump aboard at next month’s COP 21 climate conference in Paris.

At some point in the near future, we’ll see if Notley and Trudeau can get the job done. What concessions can they wring from the Americans as Obama attempts to broker a climate change deal that enshrines his legacy?

The four Big Oil CEOs who stood behind Notley during her climate change strategy announcement are betting she can close the deal.

They certainly weren’t there just to gild the lily.

They are way out on a limb cheerleading Canada’s first province-wide carbon tax, a hard cap on oil sands emissions, fugitive methane emissions reductions, and possibly higher power prices for only one reason: They believe Notley can cut a deal, with or without Trudeau (though more likely with).

If Notley fails, then Gerson is right and the whole thing has been a sterile PR strategy that will decarbonize the Alberta economy, what’s left of it.

But that isn’t the strategy. Notley has much bigger ambitions in mind. And significant economic benefits for Alberta – and Canada – if she can pull it off.

Give Notley credit, this is a bold move. A cheap PR stunt it is not.