Notley visits Washington to peddle new thinking in Alberta

Asked about the pipeline debates at home, premier said she has no interest in letting them strain national unity

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley pictured in Edmonton Alta, on Wednesday April 20, 2016. Notley says she is going to Washington, D.C. mainly to spread the word on her government's climate-change plan. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley in Edmonton on April 20, 2016. (Jason Franson, CP)

WASHINGTON — Alberta’s new premier began her campaign to rehabilitate the reputation of her province’s oilsands in the United States, where it was battered by the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline.

Rachel Notley walked a Washington audience through the climate-change measures taken by her new NDP government; she also described her province as home to nature-lovers who care about the environment and being good global citizens.

“I’m sure you’ve heard a lot about our province, especially the oilsands,” Notley told an audience at Johns Hopkins University.

“Quite frankly, it is possible some of it might not have been very positive. But I am proud to say that over the course of the last year, since my government has been in office, Alberta’s environmental reputation has started to change. And, I believe, change for the better.”

Related reading: What we learned from Keystone XL 

Opposition to the oilsands grew during the years-long Keystone debate, as it went from relative anonymity among the general U.S. public to becoming protesters’ preferred poster child for the high-carbon economy. Notley said previous Conservative governments in Ottawa and Edmonton didn’t help matters by foot-dragging on the climate file.

In an interview, she explained that the goal for her three-day U.S. visit was to start changing perceptions.

She told audiences about her NDP government’s $30-a-tonne carbon tax, her plan to phase out coal, and the 100 million-tonne cap on oilsands emissions that she said is one-third of some previous long-term emissions projections and said that will force the industry to innovate if it wants to grow.

There’s one point she didn’t emphasize: that neither Alberta’s efforts, nor the federal government’s, would currently allow Canada to meet its emissions targets.

Alberta’s emissions would not actually decline under her plan — just grow slower than previously projected.

The premier said she knows perceptions won’t change overnight.

Related reading: The death of the Alberta dream

She’s meeting with a White House environmental official; the head of the Center for American Progress, a prominent progressive think tank that opposed Keystone XL; and the Republican head of the Senate energy committee.

“If I leave here with people going, ‘Oh, isn’t Alberta doing something that maybe we should take a look at, maybe even learn from, and they’re kind of doing the right stuff now,’ then that’s a win,” she said in an interview Thursday.

“I think we have an important, important story to tell. And it’s not just a story. That’s the new thing. It’s real. We have significant action we’re taking on climate change.”

She stressed how important the oil industry to her province’s economy. She told the Johns Hopkins audience that it’s responsible for one-sixth of Alberta jobs.

Notley did not use her trip, however, to promote future oil pipelines.

She was asked whether she hoped her efforts would help gain approval for some future version of Keystone XL. She said that’s not her focus now.

The issue could resurface after the current U.S. presidential election.

Both Republican candidates support the pipeline cancelled by President Barack Obama. The Democrats both oppose it.

“I’m not a big fan of hypothetical questions,” she told The Canadian Press.

Asked about the pipeline debates back home, she said she has no interest in letting them strain national unity.

Notley said she intends to have a respectful conversation based on the facts, allowing both sides of the issue to feel like they’ve been heard.

Ongoing pipeline proposals have caused tension with neighbouring B.C., become a hot topic for the Parti Quebecois and prompted Saskatchewan’s premier to express annoyance with Quebec.

Notley said she’ll avoid finger-pointing.

“Canada is a collection of provinces. Historically some people play that feature off against one another. I don’t think that’s typically resulted in progress,” she said.

“It is not in any way, shape or form the appropriate frame for this conversation. And we’re not going to do that with it.”

The National Energy Board has just announced that a review into the biggest of the ongoing pipeline projects, TransCanada’s Energy East, should be completed by March 2018 after consultations with communities along the route; amid vocal opposition in Quebec, the provincial government there has agreed to conduct a separate review.

Notley said the conversation should be based on facts — about safety, the environment, and the economy. And she said people’s concerns should be heard.

“Those communities have a right to ask those questions. We’re not going to question their right — or fight with them over their right. That doesn’t help engage in conversation — suggesting they’re not allowed to have it,” she said.