It was eight minutes into her 12-minute victory speech when Danielle Smith touched on the things the United Conservative crowd loved more than anything except the win itself.
The “warning to Ottawa” — the warning she said she hoped Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberals listened to (a few minutes before 2 a.m. Eastern on Tuesday morning).
The Prime Minister, now armed with a mandate, urged Ottawa to scrap its plans for a net-zero power grid in 12 years, as well as the liberals’ proposed regulations to limit emissions from the carbon-intensive oil and gas sector.
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“As Prime Minister, I cannot allow this considered federal policy to be imposed on Albertans. I simply cannot and will not,” Smith told the crowd, drawing some of the night’s biggest oops and screams. If there’s one word that federal ministers and aides have keyed in, it’s the harshness of “inflicted,” reflecting the longstanding conservative message that environmental regulations are designed to punish or stick Albertans.
A new leaf, fig or otherwise
The day after the election, Smith spoke in more pragmatic-looking terms as she spoke to a round of TV news presenters, rather than vocal partisans.
“I would like to reset our relationship,” said the prime minister Vassy Kapelos of CTV. “I’d like to work together on things we can agree on because I don’t think the country will benefit from Alberta seeing its economy shut down.”
On the surface, the rhetoric about a post-election “reset” makes it sound like Smith intends to take a new direction in the often belligerent relationship with Ottawa on the energy/environment front.
With both the Smith and Trudeau administrations sharing the ambition of a net-zero country and province by 2050, that language seems to convey wishes for a new era of collaboration.
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But a listener should pay as much attention to the last part of the sentence as to the first – about the economy shutting down. One wonders how publicly describing the government’s regulations as shutting down the provincial economy is less caustic than saying the Ottawa policy is being “imposed” on Alberta.
She did this in her months as prime minister before the federal election, this show of wielding both the olive branch and the flamethrower simultaneously in federal relations. In February, she wrote one of her many publicly posted letters to Trudeau, announcing a new era of cooperation on emissions reduction.
But she added a non-negotiable condition that Ottawa scrap several of its core clean electricity climate policies and an emissions cap that equates Smith to a production cap. The initiatives, she claimed, pose an “unconstitutional and existential threat” to the industry.
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For Smith, collaboration is only allowed on issues that are more complementary than challenging to Alberta’s oil and gas sector: carbon capture, hydrogen projects, and obtaining geothermal electricity from old wells. She would like Canada to get extra allowances by exporting liquefied natural gas abroad, something that Ottawa discussed years ago but seems to lose since then optimism or interest in.
“I’m very optimistic that we’ll solve the problem with technology, but if you short-circuit that and try to reach an unachievable goal too early, you’re driving the investment away,” Smith said in a post-election election campaign. interview with CBC host David Cochrane.
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith talks about climate plans
After four years of United Conservative government under Jason Kenney and now Smith, the federal Departments of Natural Resources and Environment should be used to the gulf between how heated the rhetoric can be and how much behind-the-scenes work UCP and Liberal officials do to actually map out a path that both the oil spill and the climate-related ministries can live with.
Kenney’s revised industrial carbon tax won Ottawa’s approval, as did the plan to reduce methane emissions. During the pandemic, the Alberta government was grateful for Ottawa’s generous work program to clean up old oil and gas wells.
Smith, for her part, has also been able to work closely with Ottawa and has never objected to the federal health care funding pact — it committed her to not pursuing Canada Health Act user payment violations, she has stated — and she even tried to sell the federal pledge $10 per day child care as a UCP campaign promise. During bushfires, “the prime minister has been very helpful,” she noted to Cochrane.
It’s hard to imagine the Liberals abandoning the 2035 clean energy plan they want as a stepping stone to net zero by 2050, or the emissions cap they promised during the last federal election campaign.
Trudeau and the ministers may prefer a spirit of negotiation and compromise from Smith in those areas, as well as the “sustainable jobs/just transition” plan that she bombasticly claimed would wipe out any job in oil and gas, based on a section from a clumsily drafted document from last year.
Federal Environment Secretary Steven Guilbeault (left) and Natural Resources Secretary Jonathan Wilkinson have simultaneously faced slings and arrows from two Alberta United Conservative prime ministers, while also working with them. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
On that front, she seems to be looking for total victory, though it’s not clear what she intends to use to get there other than rhetoric. There is talk of more constitutional challenges, but if the Supreme Court that failed to overturn Ottawa’s carbon tax comes back later this year and rejects Alberta’s challenge of the Bill C-69 environmental project assessments, how many more times can they try and possibly fail?
As for the sovereignty bill that Smith enacted last year, it has been rhetorically reduced to, in her words to Cochrane, “a way of educating the country and Eastern media and federal politicians about how our country is supposed to work.”
That’s a big step back from November, when she pledged to enforce the law and refused to enforce federal law, and a step back from her top aide Rob Anderson’s comments last May that Alberta could use the law to ban the province’s gas stations from applying the carbon tax.
The local public
The harsh rhetoric may not stop Ottawa from acting, but it could keep her United Conservatives from splintering.
Challenging Trudeau in the interests of the energy sector is a way to offer red meat to the hardline grassroots without doing anything to pensions or public health that might scare off urban moderates.
Federal conflict, prime ministers for generations, has been good for political unity in Alberta. But so is effective federal work.
After all, one of the ironic twists of this election is that it entitles Smith to stand next to Trudeau and celebrate the opening of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion that the Liberals bought.