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Oil field pump jacks in rural Southern Alberta, on Nov. 9, 2022.TODD KOROL/The Globe and Mail

The federal Liberals’ Just Transition strategy is turning into the 2023 dispute that won’t quit. Both women who would be Alberta premier are saying they will fight the plan.

And even with mistruths being thrown around regarding a federal briefing note on the matter, the early-this-year timeline for legislation and poor communication on the idea risks turning “standing up to Ottawa” into the number-one campaign issue for Alberta’s coming provincial election.

What had been taken up as an issue by the governing United Conservative Party this month exploded this week with the airing of a 2022 briefing document on what the federal government variously calls the Just Transition or Sustainable Jobs strategy. Even Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley told reporters Wednesday the plan is “fundamentally flawed” and “cannot go ahead in its current state.”

With legislation set to be introduced early this year, the federal government says it’s a strategy to help workers transition into the jobs of the future. The UCP, on the other hand, says it’s a plan to wind-up Alberta’s oil and gas industry.

It’s one portion of the 81-page document talking about the high-paying blue- and white-collar jobs at stake that’s getting the most attention. There’s a discussion of there being “larger-scale transformations” to “help meet the government’s emission reduction targets.”

In this paragraph, it lists jobs per sector: Agriculture (about 292,000 workers or 1.5 per cent of Canada’s employment), energy (about 202,000 workers or 1 per cent of Canada’s employment), manufacturing (about 193,000 workers or 1 per cent of Canada’s employment), buildings (about 1.4 million workers or 7 per cent of Canada’s employment) and transportation sectors (about 642,000 workers or 3 per cent of Canada’s employment).

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The federal government says that this is a list of what jobs exist in specific sectors now, that it demonstrates focus on those industries that will need extra support, and that it’s not phasing out anything. It also notes this memo was meant to be used as talking points and isn’t a policy document.

For the Alberta UCP’s part, this odious or poorly written section is too juicy to resist attacking. Premier Danielle Smith is even willing to use quotes that don’t exist. On Wednesday, Ms. Smith released a video where she said the briefing note made her sick to her stomach, because it’s worse than she feared. She then said, wrongly, that the document states: “Canadians thrown out of work by climate change programs can always get jobs as janitors.”

The document doesn’t say that – Ms. Smith appears to be scooping up phrasing from Blacklock’s Reporter, the news outlet that originally broke news of the document’s existence. The only mention of a janitor in the document is another nearby line: “Some green jobs will not require workers with green skills to perform their jobs (i.e. janitor or driver working for a solar energy company).”

But here’s why the UCP narrative on this is compelling to some. Liberal MPs do not represent parts of the country the most heavily invested in oil and gas, or agriculture. The federal government is planning for an ambitious industry-specific oil and gas emissions cap by 2030.

Minister of Natural Resources Jonathan Wilkinson and associate minister of finance Randy Boissonnault (one of two Alberta MPs in the governing Liberal party) speak often about working with and being aligned with oil sands producers on net-zero goals. But at the same time, the Prime Minister gives interviews where the shorthand is Alberta is a rogue province that needs to be reined in.

“One of the challenges is there is a political class in Alberta that has decided that anything to do with climate change is going to be bad for them or for Alberta,” Justin Trudeau told Reuters this month.

Alberta does have a history of dragging its heels on environmental initiatives. But the industry-heavy province that punches far above its weight economically has a far steeper climate hill to climb than provinces that run on hydro and real estate returns.

It was also the first in Canada to put a price on greenhouse gas emissions from large emitters – 16 years ago – and nearly all politicos in Alberta know the world is changing. It’s on the question of how fast to move where there’s debate.

Another key part of this week’s controversial briefing note highlighted that the oil and gas sector makes up 27 per cent of Alberta’s GDP. That percentage is less than 3 per cent in most other provinces – showing how regionally specific the industry is. But anyone with an imagination is able to think about how it would feel if more than a quarter of their home region or province’s GDP was in question.

The much more consequential and longer-term debate is whether “the transition to a low-carbon economy,” as discussed in the memo, is being demanded and driven by investors around the world, or by the federal government. The answer is both.

On Wednesday, Ms. Notley said she has been clear with MPs that even “the spectre” of federal politicians in Ottawa debating legislation that will disproportionately hit hundreds of thousands of workers primarily residing in Alberta is entirely wrong.

There is no doubt that the provincial election is top of mind in all of this. The UCP constantly tries to portray Ms. Notley as in league with federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Mr. Trudeau. Ms. Notley is directing most of her criticism at the UCP, which she says is grossly incompetent on the energy file and others, and is “focused entirely on conflict and their own internal chaos.”

But Ms. Notley adds that Ottawa moving forward with Just Transition/Sustainable Jobs legislation “while we’re in the midst of what is almost an election campaign … without us at the table is just not acceptable. It’s not how you run the country.”

If she has any lines into those NDP and Liberal federal politicians, it’s sure she’s raising her objections. If the campaign theme for a May vote turns into a question of protecting Albertans from Ottawa intrusion – as opposed to one focused on health care, education or inflation – it could give the UCP an advantage. Ms. Smith and the UCP have been hammering away on this topic for longer, and their potential supporters are more motivated by it.

But federal politicians could argue that the timeline for what they see as key legislation can’t be dictated by provincial politics. And perhaps some in Ottawa are thinking in coarse political terms as well, and would rather have a conservative in office in Alberta – as a convenient foil.

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