Rachel Notley is walking a fine line on her first major interprovincial and international trip as Alberta Premier, trying to sell the benefits of expanding the oil sands while simultaneously promising tough action on climate change.
In a meeting on Thursday with her Ontario counterpart, Kathleen Wynne, Ms. Notley expounded on the value of building Energy East, TransCanada's proposed 4,600-kilometre pipeline that would deliver oil from Alberta and Saskatchewan to ports in Quebec and New Brunswick. The line, which would pass through Ontario, is a crucial step in boosting oil sands production by shipping more oil overseas.
"For Alberta, we need to diversify our energy markets in order to have a sustainably growing energy industry," the NDP Premier told reporters following a 70-minute sit-down at Ms. Wynne's Queen's Park office. "A pipeline is good economics for Alberta and it's good economics for Canada."
Ms. Notley's trip, which included stops in Montreal and New York earlier this week, coincided with the release of federal NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair's climate-change plan. At the centre of the plan is an aggressive target to slash Canada's greenhouse-gas emissions 34 per cent below 1990 levels by 2025. Canada's emissions are currently about 20-per-cent higher than 1990 levels. Mr. Mulcair also wants energy projects, such as pipelines, evaluated based on whether they fit with the country's emissions-reduction targets.
While Ms. Notley has said Alberta would opt out of a national cap-and-trade system proposed by Mr. Mulcair, she said she supports the rest of the plan and promised Thursday to push forward with measures to cut emissions. An Alberta government panel is consulting with industry and experts, and is expected to report back within the next two months on how the province should proceed.
"I support the framework that Tom Mulcair has put forward with respect to the climate-change plan, because we all have to make a contribution to moving forward with respect to our record on this important issue," Ms. Notley said.
But asked if it would actually be possible to hit Mr. Mulcair's ambitious greenhouse-gas reduction targets while still building Energy East and expanding the oil sands, Ms. Notley indicated she does not know and is waiting to hear back from the consultations.
"In terms of getting into particular numbers and particular discussions, we have a very robust climate-change panel that is in place right now," she said. "We're going to have to wait for the panel to report."
Ms. Notley did, however, suggest that her province is looking at ways to cut emissions that would not touch the oil sands. One option is shutting coal-fired power plants, which currently provide about half of Alberta's electricity. Ms. Notley pointed to energy conservation and the construction of renewable energy as possibilities.
Alberta is key to Canada's fight against climate change. The province is responsible for 37 per cent of the country's emissions, the most of any province. And while the other three big emitters – Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia – are cutting emissions, Alberta's are rising, going up by 53 per cent since 1990 and 14 per cent since 2005.
Some environmental groups argue it is impossible to reduce total emissions while expanding the oil sands. They have called for oil production to be kept at current levels and want Energy East scuppered.
Ms. Wynne has taken a more conciliatory stance. She and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard last year jointly imposed conditions that Energy East must meet to win their support, including that the project consult with communities along its route and work with First Nations. But the Liberal premiers opted not to take into account the extra emissions from the oil sands that could be created by the project.
On Thursday, she sounded an encouraging note for Ms. Notley after their meeting.
"A project like the pipeline shouldn't be about pitting one province against another. It's about how do we have this conversation in a way that recognizes the economic merits and the economic needs of all our provinces?" Ms. Wynne said. "There are 1,100 companies in Ontario that are dependent on the oil sands in Alberta."
And she affirmed her belief that it is possible to further develop the oil sands while still cutting emissions.
"Alberta will decide what is best for it, but both provinces know the result has to be a reduction of emissions," she said. "A real reduction of emissions is our goal."