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Brace for it: Alberta is about to endure weeks of vicious climate-change-induced political weather!

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Shannon Phillips

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The Notley government officially introduced its package of climate-change strategy in the Legislature yesterday and as a result Alberta is now sure to face weeks of nasty, even vicious, political weather.

At a rooftop news conference at the site of former premier Alison Redford's notorious Sky Palace, Environment Minister Shannon Phillips also introduced to the media a very broad range of supporters for Bill 20, the Climate Leadership Implementation Act, including business leaders, municipal politicians, environmental leaders, green technology promoters, union officers and economists.

If nothing else, this illustrates there is broad -- if far from universal -- stakeholder support for the government's "Climate Leadership Plan."

Once passed -- which the NDP majority is certain to do -- the bill itself will result in the creation of two new laws: the Climate Leadership Act, which will give the government authority to establish a provincial carbon levy and consumer rebates, and the Energy Efficiency Alberta Act, which will establish a new provincial agency to administer about $170 million a year in grants and loans to energy-efficiency projects from funds raised by the levy.

Bill 20 will also amend the Corporate Tax Act to reduce the small business tax rate from 3 to 2 per cent to, the government's news release says, "help small businesses adjust to the price of carbon."

Mainstream media coverage naturally focused yesterday on the cost to Albertans of the carbon levy (or, if you're opposed to it, the carbon tax). The government estimates it at $70 to $100 per year per family. The opposition estimates it will be at 10 times as much.

How this will all play out politically is not yet clear.

In fact, the debate that follows yesterday's developments contains big risks for both the NDP Government of Premier Rachel Notley and the Official Opposition, the Wildrose Party led by Brian Jean.

To win this battle for the hearts and minds of Albertans, both the NDP and Wildrose will need to keep their strongest supporters on side, and in line.

While they keep their base sweet, both also need to appeal to that broad and fairly large group of uncommitted voters who are looking for a policy that is both environmentally sound and won't wreck the provincial economy, which as everyone knows is heavily dependent on the petroleum industry.

The extent of that dependence may be the fault of decades of mismanagement of the economy by successive Progressive Conservative governments, but that fact is of very little help to Notley and her New Democrats. If you're the government, inevitably, you own real-time economic problems, however they came about.

A key part of the NDP economic strategy, with which many Albertans passionately disagree, is based on the assumption you can't get pipelines approved to carry Alberta's resources to market without a degree of social license, and you can't get the necessary license without proving to governments in other jurisdictions you're environmentally responsible.

The opposition argument to date, with which many other Albertans disagree with equal passion, is that that's all baloney, and we can only get our pipelines by threatening and browbeating other jurisdictions as the Harper government and, to a lesser extent, the old PCs, used to do. In the NDP's favour, at least, there's a decade of evidence the opposition strategy doesn't work very well.

Regardless, support for both positions is widespread, and never the twain shall meet. Albertans can safely anticipate government and opposition will stick with their current scripts in the belief most Albertans can be persuaded to take their side.

The biggest problem for both sides is bound to be what their base will do and say.

The NDP base, as we saw at the party's recent national convention in Edmonton, really does include committed environmentalists who think the time has come to leave Alberta's petroleum resources in the ground, especially the province's Bitumen Sands. Those people are unlikely to shut up, no matter how much the Notley government wishes they would. And New Democrats in other parts of Canada who feel that way won't be able to resist the temptation to stick their oar in either.

Obviously, that has the potential to hurt the NDP, and especially to leave the impression their social license approach is not working and, the opposition is certain to claim, never will.

Premier Notley seems to have her caucus well in hand, so what used to be known as "bozo eruptions" in Alberta politics are unlikely from that source. Environmentalists embittered by past NDP environmental commitments are another matter entirely.

Moreover, if the NDP strays too far from its base, it risks splitting the party.

The official opposition's problem is much the same.

The Wildrose base and its caucus contain many outright climate-change deniers. Their leadership will want them to shut up so he can portray the party as a moderate, centre-right alternative. Jean should be able to persuade his caucus at least to keep its collective lips zipped.

People so inclined in the Wildrose base are unlikely to do so, though. Climate change deniers in other parts of Canada are also unlikely to be able to resist the temptation to stick their oar in.

What's more, just like the NDP's problem with greens too green for Alberta's political climate, if Jean drifts too far from his base, he could split his party ... again. If he lets the climate-change deniers loose, he'll be tarred with the same brush.

Worse, from the Wildrose leadership's perspective, its base is home to some very angry people whose public social media commentary borders on hysteria and genuinely frightens ordinary voting Albertans with its violent, separatist rhetoric. Guaranteed, that crowd won't be able to control themselves and keep their traps shut.

This tendency in Alberta political rhetoric has been muted for the past month by the consensus and unity that resulted from reaction to the Fort McMurray fire and evacuation. But the Fort Mac evacuees are about to go home, and it's reasonable to expect such rhetoric to start cranking up again soon.

Everything is complicated by the fact many people occupying the fringes on both sides of this debate think any compromise is a betrayal and sincerely believe the more overheated their rhetoric, the more likely their position is to succeed.

At least two other parties, the PCs and the Liberals, will also be looking for ways to occupy the middle ground and thereby steal a few votes.

How this will shake out may depends to a significant degree on the skill of the two party leaders -- Notley and Jean. They need to keep the tone balanced and their supporters in check. In that regard, this may truly be a case in which your best friends are your worst enemies and your worst enemies your best friends!

Factors completely outside the two leaders' control can and probably will also play a role. If the oil price goes up or down -- something neither party can even influence -- it will have an impact. If a supporter says something particularly stupid or offensive, that too could have an impact.

If a political leader does something foolish -- say, elbows an opposing MLA -- that too will have an impact, although I think we can count on it that such a misstep is not very likely. Surely both Notley and Jean know their political fate may rest on who can sound the most rational and persuasive.

Nevertheless, we should probably batten down the hatches, because a fast, hot, empty wind is certain to blow from certain quarters here in Alberta for a while now. If nothing else, the next few weeks will be interesting.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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