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An oilfield worker walks down a flight of stairs at the Statoil oil sands facility near Conklin, Alberta, in this file picture taken November 3, 2011.

TODD KOROL/Reuters

As it seeks to streamline regulations in order to expedite oil-development projects, the federal government appears willing to effectively defer to Alberta on matters of environmental protection. It is to the credit of that province's government that it is not viewing this leeway as a free pass, and instead is at least considering setting a climate-change strategy more ambitious than the one Ottawa would settle for – including higher carbon emission-reduction targets, and stiffer penalties for companies that fail to meet them.

For Alberta, such willingness should be considered a matter of enlightened self-interest. To simply move full-throttle toward oil-sands development, without adequate checks in place, would be to risk squandering the industry's long-term potential.

In order to fully capitalize on demand for its oil, Alberta needs to convince the United States and other international markets that it takes mounting environmental concerns seriously. Much the same can be said about selling more of Alberta's oil domestically, and securing the co-operation of other provinces – most notably British Columbia – in exporting it.

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For now, all this still adds up only to a nascent effort with an uncertain outcome. Provincial bureaucrats are said to be preparing various proposals, including emissions-reductions targets as high as 20 or 30 per cent, but those ideas have not yet gone to Environment Minister Diana McQueen – let alone received sign-off from Premier Alison Redford and her cabinet, or been subjected to public scrutiny.

In the past, attempts by the province to bolster its regulatory regime have proven fleeting in the face of industry pressure; moving forward as aggressively as Ms. Redford's Progressive Conservatives are considering doing would require them to have very strong stomachs.

Still, there is something remarkable about members of Alberta's government complaining about the federal carbon strategy being too lax, as was reported this week. If that speaks to Ottawa's relative passivity on the file, it also suggests that Alberta is increasingly coming to see economic and environmental interests as interrelated rather than in conflict with each other. Who better to show leadership in striking the right balance than the province that could suffer most if we fail to do so?

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