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Alberta Premier Rachel Notley argues it will be easier to get other provinces and countries to accept new pipelines if they can be persuaded Alberta takes climate change seriously.MARTA IWANEK/The Canadian Press

Rachel Notley says Alberta needs to slash greenhouse gas emissions and clean up its environmental image to persuade more people to buy its oil.

It may sound like a contradiction in terms, but the Alberta Premier told a business luncheon in Toronto on Friday that ramping up oil sands production and tackling climate change can be done at the same time. Ms. Notley's speech to the Empire Club capped her first major interprovincial trip since she led the NDP to power in May.

"Under our leadership, Alberta's abundant oil and gas reserves will remain open to investment," she told hundreds of Bay Street movers and shakers. "It is my hope that by acting decisively on the issue of climate change, we will reframe the current national debate over pipelines and energy infrastructure."

She argued it will be easier to get other provinces and countries to accept new pipelines if they can be persuaded Alberta takes climate change seriously. TransCanada Corp.'s proposed Keystone XL and Energy East pipelines became controversial in part because environmentalists see stopping them as a way to curtail expansion of the oil sands and constrain greenhouse gas emissions.

"Energy development and environmental responsibility are not mutually exclusive concepts. What we need to do is move away from that kind of discussion," Ms. Notley told reporters after her speech. "There is a lot of work that we can do in the province of Alberta to improve the way we produce our product so that people can be comfortable, either in terms of having that product cross over their jurisdiction or sold into their jurisdiction."

Technological advances, she said, can help companies produce petroleum from the oil sands with fewer emissions. Alberta can also cut emissions in other sectors to offset the oil sands, such as by closing coal-fired power plants in favour of greener sources of electricity, she said.

Jeff Gaulin, a vice-president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said companies can reduce the amount of carbon they use to produce a barrel of oil sands oil. But expanding production would still mean more overall emissions.

"Our industry can grow substantively over the coming years and, on a per-barrel basis, be the same as or better than other barrels around the world," he said in an interview. "But at the end of the day, by growing our energy sector, we will grow emissions."

Mr. Gaulin said Ms. Notley has not been forceful enough in fighting for new pipelines. The Premier has opted not to advocate for Keystone, and Mr. Gaulin said he felt she has even done too little to push for Energy East.

"I would like to see her take a much more vocal stand in supporting all pipeline projects in Alberta," he said.

The Pembina Institute, an environmental think tank, contends that oil sands production can expand to only 3.3 million barrels a day, about one million more than the current level. Anything more would cause Canada to do less than its fair share in limiting global warming to 2 C, Pembina argues, citing data from the International Energy Agency.

The Alberta government has already approved up to 5.2 million barrels of production a day.

"The oil sands are the fastest-growing source of emissions in Canada, so it's hard to imagine a credible climate policy that doesn't deal with that growth," Pembina analyst Erin Flanagan said. "There is a plausible scenario where there is some level of growth – but there is a hard cap to that, there is a limit, if we want to do our fair share."