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Rachel Notley's demand for a pipeline quid pro quo demonstrates the steely side of Alberta's premier

Rachel Notley

GRANDE PRAIRIE, Alberta

Rachel Notley's decision yesterday to make support for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's plan put a national price on carbon conditional on getting a pipeline approved reveals something important about Alberta's premier: just how tough she is.

Right-wing opposition parties have been screaming for a long time that Notley is too agreeable, and that her idea Alberta should seek social license by trying not to be an environmental pariah will never work, can never work, and is only evidence of weakness. They've said it enough times it's started to take on a patina of truth.

But Notley has always had enough steel in her spine not to feel the need to go around demonstrating how tough she is every minute of the day. When circumstances warrant, however, she can be as tough as she needs to be. Notley has obviously reached the conclusion this is one of those times.

Her government sincerely believes in the urgent need to achieve the seemingly counterintuitive goals of reducing carbon outputs to save the planet and finding markets for Alberta's carbon-based resources to save the province's economy. This gave rise to the idea of the NDP's carbon levy as part of a project to win the social license Notley believes is necessary to get Alberta resources to market.

As recent polling as illustrates, this is not easy to do at a time low oil prices are putting the provincial economy under extreme pressure.

So if her government is having a hard time persuading Albertans of the merits of a carbon levy of $30 a tonne, Trudeau's plan to add $20 to that by 2022 potentially complicates her political problem.

In this context, the need for pipeline approvals becomes politically even more critical -- but she must know it's no sure thing the prime minister will see it that way. After all, her political problems aren't the same as his.

Now, whether or not having a pipeline to salt water will actually make much difference to the price of oil or even the differential Alberta can get for its bitumen resource is another matter. Supply and demand are what they are, and they are governed by events and circumstances that would be far beyond Alberta's shores even if Alberta had shores.

But since the whole world seems to have reached the conclusion permission to build a pipeline is the sine qua non of political success in Alberta, Notley surely understands that she and her government will likely be judged a success if they can get one OK'd, and will certainly be called a failure if they can't.

So -- as wrongheaded as this may be -- the entire possibility of getting a second term for Alberta's unexpected NDP government now may hinge on whether everyone can agree on a pipeline from Alberta to a seacoast, almost any seacoast, a process that seems to be almost as complicated as getting agreement on amendments to the country's Constitution.

Notley, however, also knows that Trudeau, no matter how well intentioned he may be, will need to make compromises to get his deal and ensure his government is re-elected. If one of those compromises turns out to be to side with the many Canadians who think a pipeline is a bad idea under any circumstance, she knows he will be tempted to make it.

So she has drawn a line in the (oil) sand.

In yesterday's 144-word statement -- that's 128 words shorter than Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, which is surely the universal the yardstick for saying a lot in a very few words -- Premier Notley told the prime minister he cannot, he will not succumb to that understandable political urge.

"With regard to the federal government's proposals today," she stated, "Alberta will not be supporting this proposal absent serious concurrent progress on energy infrastructure, to ensure we have the economic means to fund these policies." (Energy infrastructure means pipelines, if readers are in any doubt.)

"It is time for the Government of Canada to act on this issue. Albertans have contributed very generously for many years to national initiatives designed to help other regions address economic challenges. What we are asking for now is that our landlock be broken, in one direction or another, so that we can get back on our feet."

Daveberta.ca author Dave Cournoyer calls this Notley's "Peter Lougheed Moment," with the first NDP premier of Alberta channeling the first Progressive Conservative premier to ensure the province gets what it wants.

History shows there is no better way for an Alberta politician to supercharge popularity at home than having a fight with Ottawa, he argues. But while it's certainly true no one is a better student of Lougheed than Notley, this is more than just a ploy to pick a fight with Ottawa in hopes of scoring points at home.

Meanwhile, the best the conservative Opposition seems to be able to do is trot out thoughtless comparisons between Trudeau's plan to set a price on carbon with his father's National Energy Program in the first half of the 1980s.

It's a good enough line, I guess, if you don't really know what the NEP was supposed to do or how it was supposed to work. Worthy of Donald Trump, one might say.

But the real problem faced by most of Alberta's conservative politicians -- with a few honourable exceptions in the provincial Progressive Conservative Party -- is that like Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, who was caterwauling and stomping his feet yesterday, they don't really believe there is any such a thing as climate change. To them, the whole idea of charging a price for carbon is just another excuse by "tax and spend liberals" to levy a tax.

No one can accuse Notley or the Alberta NDP of not understanding climate change is a real phenomenon.

Premier Notley sees winning this fight as an existential necessity not just for her government and her political career, but for the province's economy and place in Canada. Maybe for the planet too.

So Trudeau had better be listening to her.

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

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