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Alberta's climate change strategy: Rachel Notley builds a coalition of big business, environmentalists and civil society

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Finding a balance between effective action on climate change and economic growth in a province that relies so heavily on the extraction of petroleum resources is hard work.

That's why successive Progressive Conservative governments under the four deeply flawed caretaker premiers who followed Ralph Klein after his own party pushed him out of office in 2006 basically did nothing. Day to day, it was just easier that way, even if climate change denial got harder to sell with every passing week.

That, in turn, is arguably why it's been getting harder and harder to ship, let alone sell, oil produced from Alberta's vast Bitumen Sands deposits -- a situation that went from uncomfortable to excruciating in November 2014 when the Saudis opened their oil spigots wide and left them that way for reasons that remain murky.

This handed the problem of squaring the climate-economy circle to Rachel Notley, the social democratic NDP premier who to almost everyone's surprise -- including, one suspects, her own -- was elected premier last May 5 on a wave of popular disgust at the multitude of sins of the geriatric Tory dynasty.

Yesterday, Notley gave a speech at an Edmonton science -- ahem! -- centre and announced an evidence-based climate change strategy for Alberta that just might work, politically speaking.

"We are going to be leaders," Notley said toward the end of her speech, and there can be very little doubt of the truth of that assertion.

The plan includes a tax on carbon that will be paid by all Albertans, a cap on carbon emissions from the Bitumen Sands, and the decision to phase out all coal-fired power plants by 2030. This is dramatic stuff. It is said here it would be impossible without the broad coalition of business, civil society and environmental groups that Premier Notley has managed to bring together.

It's quite remarkable Notley managed to get industry and environmentalists on the same side. It is a huge step forward that will make the strategy hard for the usual suspects in both the NDP's political opposition and the further fringes of the environmental movement to effectively attack.

The strategy allows both rational growth in the Bitumen Sands, which should generally please the industry, and a reduction of emissions, which should make most environmentalists happy. Together -- if the planets are finally in alignment -- that historic compromise may just make it possible to build a new pipeline out of here, something that federal and provincial conservatives with all their dire threats, noisy foot-stomping and climate change denial could never accomplish.

There's also a real chance the climate change strategy will leave Albertans feeling like their province is back in the driver's seat, a leader once again in Confederation. And, you know, we do like that feeling.

Really, when Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. Chairman N. Murray Edwards, environmental icon Al Gore, the former U.S. vice president, and newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are all heaping laurels on Notley on the same day, you do get the feeling she may have really tapped into something!

It sure sounds a heck of a lot more positive than the Wildrose Opposition's gripe-of-the-day approach!

Even the coal industry -- the principal loser in this policy shift -- will probably keep its lips zipped long enough to work through the compensation negotiations the Notley government has promised. The same goes for coal miners' unions and their coal-dependent communities. They may not be happy, but their best play is to negotiate for financial support.

And we haven't even got to the health benefits of the strategy -- that's the topic of today's mid-morning announcement by Environment Minister Shannon Phillips. Notley will leave for Ottawa later today to attend a first-ministers' meeting to discuss climate change, days before the United Nations conference on climate change in a still jittery Paris.

Is there even a downside, you may ask? Well, of course there is! The fly in the ointment is bound to be how the public reacts to the portion of the carbon tax that ordinary Albertans will have to pay directly.

The government can and will argue that since the money raised by the carbon tax will be invested back into the Alberta economy, it's therefore revenue-neutral and not a mere cash grab.

But whether voters will see it that way when the price of gasoline at the pumps and fuel to heat their homes is going to increase measurably is another matter. It’s hard to say if they'll connect the dots between those higher prices, which are bound to be felt viscerally, and the environmental, macroeconomic and health benefits that will flow from the NDP climate strategy.

The Wildrose Party clearly thinks they won't, and that's why Opposition Leader Brian Jean was repeating the mantra yesterday that the carbon tax "will make almost every single Alberta family poorer." Expect to hear a lot more of this from Jean over the next couple of years.

The NDP just as obviously thinks voters will recognize the policy protects jobs, health and the environment. "It will help us access new markets for our energy products, and diversify our economy with renewable energy and energy efficiency technology," Notley said. "Alberta is showing leadership on one of the world’s biggest problems, and doing our part."

So, is Notley channelling Gary Doer, the three-term Manitoba NDP premier who kept that job for nearly a decade by bridging the gap between business and civil society? Only time will tell.

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

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