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Alberta Premier Danielle Smith speaks at the Canada Strong and Free Network in Ottawa on March 23.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Just before the official start of a provincial election campaign, Danielle Smith’s vision of what she would like the contest to be about was laid out in a Calgary fundraising dinner this week. It is the idea that only her United Conservative Party is equipped for an era of constant energy and climate battles with Ottawa.

While we don’t know the platforms of either party yet, this will be a key theme until election day. Rachel Notley’s NDP would rather talk about health care failures, or concern about what the UCP plans are for leaving the Canada Pension Plan. The UCP believes that if the election becomes a question of the economy, or whether Ms. Smith or Ms. Notley is best positioned to deal with the federal government, the UCP odds increase.

On Wednesday night, Ms. Smith gave a campaign-style speech at the tenor of folksy conservative premier – down one notch from the firebrand leadership candidate of last fall. The Premier took aim at two key pieces of federal policy in her speech: first, the oil and natural gas sector emissions cap she said is targeted at Alberta. And the second, the “plan to ban electricity and heat generated from natural gas” – or Ottawa’s requirement that all provinces have net-zero emissions grids by 2035. Later in the evening, during a more casual fireside chat, she added in her concern about the federal goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from fertilizer used in agriculture by 30 per cent.

She said her government would be “relentless in our opposition, using every tool at our disposal to protect Albertans, their jobs and their futures.” She left to the imagination of the audience of near 1,000 party members which tools that would include. There was no mention in the speech of her once-vaunted Sovereignty Act, which acted as the key prop in the UCP leadership race and is now passed into law – but is too scary and unworkable to be a selling point to most Albertans in an election campaign.

Ms. Smith said emissions neutrality by 2050 – otherwise known as net zero – is achievable. But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau must change course and work collaboratively – instead of unilaterally and unconstitutionally – with Alberta on carbon capture, nuclear and hydrogen, while increasing export of liquefied natural gas. But also: “Mr. Trudeau, we can either do this the easy way or the hard way. But either way, we’re going to do it the Alberta way.”

The UCP has already dined out on Ottawa’s Just Transition/Sustainable Jobs push this year, which the Smith government said was about phasing out or shutting down the province’s energy sector. But in February, the extremely low-key announcement from Ottawa on Sustainable Jobs was a plan to develop a plan, underwhelming to both supporters and opponents of the idea.

Ottawa is perhaps now weary of introducing policies that could make waves in the Alberta election campaign. The details of the federal government’s oil and gas cap – once advertised to be coming early this year – are now more likely to be released after Alberta votes on May 29.

The federal Liberal push to broaden its influence in climate and environment policies across the country sets it up for conflicts with Alberta, which will constantly remind Ottawa of its jurisdiction over natural resources. This played out at the Supreme Court of Canada this week, where the question is whether the 2019 Impact Assessment Act for big projects undermines provincial rights.

It’s also easy for Ms. Smith to frame that federal oil and gas cap as aimed squarely at Alberta. Home to most of Canada’s oil production, it’s also the province with most of Canada’s oil and gas GHG emissions.

There’s a lot of nuance in the area of electricity generation. The federal government’s plan to achieve net zero by 2035 doesn’t take into account regional differences in how Canadians charge their electric vehicles and keep the lights on. Alberta is in the final stages of its own energy transition. Coal made up half of the province’s power generation a decade ago, and nobody thought Alberta getting off coal within a matter of years was possible. But the government now boasts that the province will be fully transitioned off coal-powered electricity by the end of this year. There’s a world where natural gas continues to play a role in power generation in provinces such as Alberta for years to come, especially if emissions are abated through carbon capture.

Making the election about battling with Ottawa is what the UCP wants to do, as Albertans are more conflicted about internal matters, including the UCP’s ability to build health care infrastructure or capacity, or the party’s sometimes old-school take on energy policy. The latter includes a hasty push to create a new policy to provide incentives to clean up old oil and gas wells that critics say would reward companies for doing what they’re already legally obligated to do.

Ms. Smith’s speech argued that the NDP record is one of “acquiescence and weakness” in its dealings with Ottawa, skipping over critical history on the part of the NDP’s time in office, between 2015 and 2019, when oil prices were low enough to make governing difficult for any Alberta government, no matter the party.

At that time, the NDP introduced not-so-neighbourly “turn off the taps” legislation in its battles with British Columbia and cut off support of a national carbon pricing system as a political chess move. And yes, the NDP introduced a carbon price and sometimes worked with the Trudeau Liberals (as the UCP has also done). It did so in part to win a modicum amount of support for energy projects, including the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion – now slated to be in service next year, albeit with vast cost overruns – in an increasingly carbon-constrained world.

But during her evening speech at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Calgary, Ms. Smith made sure to focus on the NDP’s connections to the federal Liberals and NDP, and the long history of conservatives from the province battling with Ottawa. She knows this is potentially a successful strategy for the UCP, which needs to win big in the province’s largest city.