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Alberta Premier Rachel Notley answers a question from Bob Perciasepe, president, Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, following her 2015-2016 Thomas O. Enders Memorial Lecture on U.S.-Canadian Relations at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, Thursday, April 28, 2016.

Cliff Owen/AP

In an effort to change Alberta's long-standing image in Washington from a provider of cheap but dirty crude to a greenish global leader on cutting carbon, Premier Rachel Notley came to the American capital Thursday with a message that echoed President Barack Obama.

"Action on climate change isn't about one province or even one country," Ms. Notley said. "It's about the future of our planet."

In Washington, where Alberta's oil sands and the controversial – and now-thwarted Keystone XL pipeline – have dominated bilateral relations for years, Ms. Notley faces a huge task to convince both the energy and environmental sectors that her government can transform the province into a global environmental leader.

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She admitted as much. "If you are engaged in climate and energy policy, then I'm sure you've heard a lot about our province, especially the oil sands," she said in a speech that capped a day of meeting with congressional and administration officials. "And, quite frankly, it's possible some of it might not have been very positive."

Changing policy may be easier for the province's new New Democratic government than greening Alberta's reputation abroad. Ms. Notley conceded it will take time and more than one visit. But in an interview prior to her speech, she also declined to be drawn into the ongoing political battle over resurrecting Keystone XL to funnel Alberta's crude to Gulf Coast refineries in Texas and Louisiana.

For instance, while both Democratic presidential hopefuls are solidly opposed to Keystone XL and all three remaining Republican candidates back it, the Premier ducked when asked whether she had a preference over who should follow Mr. Obama in the Oval Office. Similarly, she said she had no view on TransCanada Corp's legal action seeking $15-billion from U.S. taxpayers for what the Alberta company claims was a flawed and unfair decision.

She said she had no interest in promoting an export pipeline through the United States to global markets.

"My focus is to improve our actual record on climate and … frankly to get a pipeline to Canadian tidewater," she said.

In her speech, she said that "leadership on climate change is a role we are proud to take on," a theme unheard of from an Alberta premier for a generation.

She pointed blame at previous governments in Edmonton for sullying the province and its reputation. "Alberta's oil sands have, quite frankly, served as an effective symbol to mobilize [opposition] around this issue," she said. "Alberta's past governments did not do much to address the criticism our energy sector attracted [and] we paid a heavy price – both environmentally and economically."

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She might have added reputationally. In Washington, leading climate-change deniers are among the greatest champions of Alberta's massive oil reserves. And environmental groups turned the oil sands into an icon of wretched environmental damage and made thwarting Keystone XL the centrepiece of a massive campaign to persuade Mr. Obama to deliver on his promise to lead on cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

"We've taken action on climate change, not only because it is crucial to the future of our energy economy … but because it is the right thing to do."

But Ms. Notley made clear she wasn't turning her back on oil. Rather she intends – with carbon levies and a cap and new technologies – to inject some green into her province's policies and resources. "We hope that the price of oil will recover, not just to generate revenue but because those revenues can be used to drive innovation.

"Investment in green technologies will create new jobs and help build our knowledge economy," she said. "Alberta's next big energy export might not be carried through pipelines. It could be a technology that helps the world to reduce carbon emissions from energy production."

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