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Alberta Premier Jim Prentice waves to the gallery during before the speech from the throne at the Alberta Legislature in Edmonton, on Monday November 17, 2014.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

In Alberta, where the Conservatives are Progressive, Premier Jim Prentice accurately described his province's biggest challenge in a weekend speech to his party. Alberta, he said, has to find new markets in Asia for its oil, and the only way it can do that is by redefining the province "as an environmental leader."

That's going to be difficult – being an environmental leader while selling tarry fossil fuel that is yanked from the ground in an emissions-heavy process is quite the feat. But that's the line an energy exporter has to walk today. Last week's unprecedented China-U.S. agreement on climate change is proof the world is taking the issue seriously, and suggests that, in the long run, demand for fossil fuels may fall as countries cut emissions. At the same time, oil isn't going away. There's still a huge market. It's just getting harder to compete, and the price has recently been dropping. Alberta would be wise to no longer rely on one main buyer, the U.S.

Mr. Prentice is right when he says that, unless Alberta can get its oil-sands bitumen to the Pacific Ocean, it will not be able to sustain its current growth.

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But Mr. Prentice also knows that an unrepentantly carbon-emitting Alberta will have a hard time convincing British Columbians and native communities to support a western pipeline. That's why he spoke passionately about making Alberta an "environmental leader." If he's serious, he has a few options. He could turn Alberta's levy on smokestack emitters into a general carbon tax similar to the one British Columbia has implemented. He could announce more investment into carbon-capture technologies. And he could demonstrate a genuine concern for the impact of the oil sands on waterways and on native communities.

The challenge, in short, is to show the world that Alberta understands that it is living in a different moment in history from the heady days of willful climate-change denial and $150/barrel crude. That's going to be tough. And even if Mr. Prentice succeeds in changing the thinking in his province, there's another problem.

In Ottawa, where the Conservatives don't come with a moderating adjective, Prime Minister Stephen Harper hasn't told anyone how Canada intends to meet its international commitment to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020. Even if Alberta is able to convincingly demonstrate leadership on the environment, it may be held back by the federal government's failure to do the same.

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