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Green energy: Ontario's new political battleground Add to ...

Dalton McGuinty got himself uncharacteristically cranked up.

The Opposition Leader across from him, he charged this week in the Ontario Legislature, could not make reference to the government's green-energy agreement with the Samsung Group "without saying that they are foreigners." Stopping short of calling Tim Hudak a xenophobe, the Premier settled for trying to brand him a relic who doesn't understand the realities of the global economy.

"It's not the 1960s; it's not the 1970s!" Mr. McGuinty shouted. "It's the 21st century!"

It was about the most passionate argument that could be made on behalf of the murky Samsung deal, which the Progressive Conservative Leader had pledged earlier that morning to scrap, and an indication of how heated the green-energy debate is about to get. What once seemed a perfect marriage of economic and environmental priorities - a chance to simultaneously create jobs and make the air cleaner - appears to be turning into a different sort of double-whammy.

The promises Mr. Hudak made Tuesday - to put an end to the multibillion-dollar Samsung arrangement, along with the "feed-in tariff" program that pays smaller developers high prices for wind and solar projects - allow him to make a broad pitch to the electorate and a more specific one to swing ridings.

Mr. Hudak stands to capitalize on pocketbook angst over rising energy prices for which green projects have (to an exaggerated extent) been blamed. At the same time, with his promise to give municipalities more say in where projects go up, he hopes to pick up not-in-my-backyard votes in Southwestern and Eastern Ontario communities where wind turbines have proliferated.

Whether Mr. Hudak would actually be able to get out of existing contracts is debatable. The scuttlebutt within the energy industry is that a PC government could seize on delays moving forward as an excuse to cancel at least certain components of the Samsung deal. (Samsung begs to differ, contending that it's been moving forward in good faith.) But then, from a political perspective, it doesn't much matter; history shows that incoming governments are well able to pass off blame to their predecessors for negotiating ironclad agreements.

That Mr. Hudak sees political advantage in promising to roll back green energy initiatives, regardless of how successful he'd be at it, owes partly to environmentalism slipping down voters' priority lists.

But the Liberals have helped make Mr. Hudak's case. In their hurry to use green energy as a recession response, there were a good number of missteps - exorbitant premiums to small developers, contracts that existing transmission lines can't accommodate, all sorts of confusion about offshore wind development. As a result, the government created suspicions even among those inclined to support its efforts.

None of this is to say that, politically, the issue is a lost cause for Mr. McGuinty - or that it's without risk for Mr. Hudak.

Over the next few months, the Liberals will make the case that with less "clean" energy, the Tories would have to keep relying on "dirty" coal - potentially a good way to scare swing voters. And they will try to use green energy to consolidate support among left-of-centre voters, potentially helping keep supporters from drifting to the NDP or the Green Party.

If they can't win the broader argument, the Liberals will at least try to win localized ones. They've spent a lot of time recently making green-jobs announcements that, while capturing little media attention, can make a big splash in communities. Over the summer, there will be many more of these.

Key to selling those messages will be getting their salespeople motivated. The Samsung deal in particular has long had very limited support on the Liberal benches. And there are mixed accounts as to just how thrilled rural MPPs are with the rush toward alternative energy in general.

Mr. McGuinty, as he showed this week, still believes fervently in his green-energy policies. But if he's going to turn around this debate, he'll need others to share his passion.

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