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When Danielle Smith says she wants a reset with Ottawa, she means on her terms alone

Alberta premier's talk of collaboration with Trudeau Liberals isn't what her base wants to hear. Hardliners prefer the threats she includes with her olive-branch rhetoric.

Alberta's premier says she'll collaborate, but not on any of Liberals' key climate plans

A politician listens before speaking into a microphone during a news conference

It was eight minutes into her 12-minute victory speech when Danielle Smith got into the stuff the United Conservative crowd liked more than anything, other than the victory itself.

The "warning to Ottawa" — the one she said she hoped Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberals were listening to (at a few minutes before 2 a.m Eastern on Tuesday morning).

The premier, now armed with a mandate, urged Ottawa to scrap its plans for a net-zero electrical grid in 12 years, as well as the Liberals' proposed regulations to cap emissions from the carbon-intensive oil and gas sector.

"As premier I cannot allow these contemplated federal policies to be inflicted upon Albertans. I simply can't and I won't," Smith told the crowd, eliciting some of the night's biggest whoops and hollers. If there's one word federal ministers and aides may have keyed in on, it's the harshness of "inflicted," reflecting the longstanding conservative message that environmental regulations are designed to punish or stick it to Albertans.

A new leaf, fig or otherwise

The day after the election, Smith spoke in more pragmatic-seeming terms when she was speaking with a round of TV news hosts, rather than boisterous partisans.

"I'd love to reset our relationship," the premier told CTV's Vassy Kapelos. "I'd love to be able to work together on things we can agree on, because I don't think the country benefits by seeing Alberta shut its economy down."

On its face, rhetoric about a post-election "reset" makes it sound like Smith is planning to turn a new leaf in the often combative relationship with Ottawa on the energy/environment file.

Now that both Smith's government and Trudeau's share the ambition of a net-zero country and province by 2050, that language seems to convey wishes for a new era of collaboration.

But a listener ought to pay as much attention to the last part of the sentence as the first — about shutting down the economy. One may wonder how publicly framing the government's regulations as shutting down the provincial economy is any less caustic than saying Ottawa policy is "inflicted" upon Alberta.

She did this in her months as premier before the federal election, this show of simultaneously wielding both the olive branch and flamethrower in federal relations. In February, she wrote one of her many publicly posted letters to Trudeau, offering a new era of cooperation on emissions reduction.

But she included a non-negotiable condition that Ottawa scrub out several of its core climate policies on clean electricity and an emissions cap that Smith equates to a production cap. The initiatives, she claimed, amount to an "unconstitutional and existential threat" to the sector.

To Smith, collaboration is only permissible on the matters that are more complement than challenge for Alberta's oil and gas sector — carbon capture, hydrogen projects and getting geothermal electricity from old wells. She'd like Canada to get extra credits on emissions by exporting liquefied natural gas overseas, something that Ottawa discussed years ago but has since seemed to lose optimism or interest in.

"I'm very optimistic that with technology we'll solve the problem, but if you short-circuit that, and try to achieve an unachievable target too early, you end up chasing the investment away," Smith said in a post-election interview with CBC host David Cochrane.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith talks climate plans

2 days ago

Duration 2:02

Speaking to CBC's Power & Politics, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith says her government is focused on carbon neutrality by 2050 while leaning on new technologies like carbon capture, utilization and storage.

After four years of United Conservative government under Jason Kenney and now Smith, the federal natural resources and environment ministries should by now be used to the gap between how heated the rhetoric can be, and how much behind-the-scenes work that UCP and Liberal officials do to actually carve out a path that both the oil patch and climate-related ministries can live with.

Kenney's revised industrial carbon tax got Ottawa's sanction, as did the methane emission reduction plan. During the pandemic, Alberta's government was grateful for Ottawa's generous make-work program to remediate old oil and gas wells.

Smith, for her part, has also been able to work closely with Ottawa, never offering qualms about the federal health-care funding pact — it's committed her to not pursuing Canada Health Act-violating user pay, she's stated — and she even tried selling the federal promise of $10-a-day childcare as a UCP campaign promise. During wildfires, "the prime minister was 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 full net zero by 2050, or the emissions cap they promised in the last federal election campaign.

Trudeau and ministers might prefer a spirit of negotiation and compromise from Smith in those areas, as well as the "sustainable jobs/just transition" plan she had bombastically claimed would wipe out every job in oil and gas, based on one section from an awkwardly worded document last year.

In that area, she seems to be looking for total victory, though it's not clear what she wants to use to get there, beyond rhetoric. There's some talk of more constitutional challenges, but if the Supreme Court that didn't foil Ottawa's carbon tax comes back later this year and rejects Alberta's challenge to the Bill C-69 environmental project assessments, how many more times can they try and potentially fail?

As for the Sovereignty Act that Smith enacted last year, it has become rhetorically reduced to, in her words to Cochrane, "a way of educating the country and the Eastern media as well as the federal politicians about how our country is supposed to work."

That's a big step down from back in November, when she promised to employ the act and refuse to enforce federal law, and a step down from her top aide Rob Anderson's comments last May that Alberta could use the act to ban the province's gas stations from applying the carbon tax.

The local audience

The tough rhetoric may not deter Ottawa from acting, but it could deter her United Conservatives from splintering.

Jabbing at Trudeau for the sake of the energy sector is a way of offering red meat to the hardline base without doing anything on pensions or public health that may spook the urban moderates.

Federal conflict, for generations of premiers, has been good for political unity in Alberta. But so has effective federal work.

After all, one of the ironic twists of this election is that it has given Smith the right to stand alongside Trudeau and celebrate the opening of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion that the Liberals bought.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jason Markusoff

Producer and writer

Jason Markusoff analyzes what's happening — and what isn't happening, but probably should be — in Calgary and sometimes farther afield. He's written in Alberta for nearly two decades with Maclean's magazine, the Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal. He appears regularly on Power and Politics' Power Panel and various other CBC current affairs shows. Reach him at jason.markusoff@cbc.ca

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