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andrew leach

Andrew Leach is the Enbridge Professor of Energy Policy at the University of Alberta.

In the wake of defeats in four Alberta by-elections, opposition leader Danielle Smith looks ready to focus more on issues. Ms. Smith chose climate change as one of the first – a telling sign of how much environment policy has come to matter for electability in Alberta. In addition to a post on her new blog, Ms. Smith also spoke in Calgary on Alberta's approach to greenhouse gases.

Climate change contributed to the defeat of her party in the last campaign, after Ms. Smith was quoted saying that Wildrose "have always said the science isn't settled." She has been walking back from that position, and was quoted in October, 2013, as saying: "I accept that climate change is a reality…(and)…I accept that there's a human influence on it." We don't know much more as to where Ms. Smith stands on the science, but it's clear that she understands this is an important issue for Alberta – that's a start.

Her blog and speech hit some of the right notes. She's right that the "elephant in the room is the oil sands." Oil sands have become a symbol in the global fight against climate change, and you don't solve that problem by repeating that oil sands emissions are small. Ms. Smith followed up by contradicting industry talking points: "the fact that the oil sands are a highly regulated and profitable source of oil, jobs, wealth and taxes is no longer good enough. The oil sands now has to develop in a manner that emits less greenhouse gas."

"Alberta can no longer dismiss nor obfuscate growing GHG emissions," Ms. Smith said, and while "we told the world that emissions per barrel were declining… this is no longer the case." She's right – total emissions and emissions per barrel are rising. This, when just last week Stephen Harper tried to correct French President François Hollande by stating (falsely) that "Canada reduced greenhouse gas emissions in the oil sands by 40 per cent in recent years."

On policy, though, Wildrose seems ready to rely on approaches proven time and again to be expensive and ineffective. Reducing emissions from the oil sands will be expensive, Ms. Smith says, and, "reducing them will require technologies that don't yet exist." Partly true, but the problem will not be solved with more dialogue. Asking industry how much more expensive it would like its production to be, or whether it can expect to benefit from new technology, is what led us down the current road – policies that require little reduction in emissions, and state-sponsored technology development.

Ms. Smith gives a nod to more support for renewable energy, "...but our policies…have not gone far enough." Done right, policies to add renewables to the grid can provide both low-cost emissions reductions and more competition in electricity markets. Done wrong, they're expensive and ineffective. More details, please.

Ms. Smith is clear that she's not proposing a carbon tax, preferring policies like "rebates for appliances, home insulation or better windows." These tend to be as wasteful as they are popular, since a large share of rebates go toward renovations that would have occurred anyways. Ms. Smith also opens the door to incentives for buying electric cars and the development of fuel-cell vehicles. Big-government policies are not what you'd expect from a small-government conservative.

Ms. Smith states that "the only thing that will truly help us get on the right side of global public opinion is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a way that is honest, measurable and explainable." She's right, in part, and the stakes were raised this week with a new deal between the U.S. and China to go along with a recent accord on targets from Europe. Alberta and Canada will need to do more than simply reduce emissions – we'll have to demonstrate that our economy, oil sands included, is compatible with globally credible GHG policies. If we can't show that, we're going to lose.