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Gary Mason

The summer of Ed Stelmach's discontent Add to ...

Once upon a time, being premier of Alberta was a breeze. Money wasn't a problem - it bubbled out of the tar sands. There was so much of it, the government built up huge cash reserves that were the envy of the rest of the country.

Being premier meant being head of the Progressive Conservatives, which have run the province uninterrupted since 1971. Most years, opposition politicians (if there were any) offered only token resistance to policy initiatives.

And then Ed Stelmach arrived on the scene, apparently bringing some bad karma with him.

Almost from the moment he took over in December of 2006 from the feisty, colourful Ralph Klein, things have gone steadily downhill for Alberta's plodding, uninspiring 13th premier. And it seems to be getting worse.

The province's perennial cash cow, the tar sands, is still generating billions, but there is notable dissent growing over the environmental implications associated with both the quality of the crude being sucked out of the earth and the extraction process itself.

The image of the tar sands, known as the more dignified "oil sands" inside the province, took a hit in April of 2008 when 1,600 ducks died in a toxic tailings pond. Last month, oil sands giant Syncrude Canada Ltd. was found guilty of environmental charges stemming from the dead ducks.

There's little worse for oil companies than the image of innocent birds grounded by black oily gook. To that extent, the spill in the Gulf of Mexico has not been Mr. Stelmach's friend. The head of Imperial Oil recently predicted that the catastrophe would lead to tighter restrictions and regulations around the transport of oil everywhere, by any means.

One of the main financial arteries for the Alberta government is the Keystone pipeline, which transports oil from the tar sands to the U.S. Midwest. Plans to expand the pipeline to the very gulf where the BP gusher still gushes is now meeting heavy resistance in the U.S. House of Representatives. A group of 50 American politicians recently petitioned Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to kibosh the expansion.

Even the smallest, seemingly most inconsequential decisions involving the tar sands make big news. When politicians in the city of Bellingham, Wash. (population 75,000), voted 7-0 in favour of "promoting energy alternatives to fossil fuels and, in particular, Canadian tar sands sources," it was as though President Barack Obama himself had supported the edict.

On top of it all, crude oil prices have taken a dive, and the long-term outlook appears to be grim as the world economy struggles to right itself.

All this bad press recently prompted a besieged Mr. Stelmach to take out an expensive ad in The Washington Post. Naturally, he was hammered for waiting too long to do too little.

Many blame Mr. Stelmach's bland insipidness for the birth of the upstart Wildrose Alliance Party. Wildrose is promising to bring true, right-wing values back to the province. And its message is not being delivered by some cowboy in a 10-gallon hat but, instead, by a media-savvy woman, with Alberta roots.

Danielle Smith is Mr. Stelmach's worst nightmare. She seems to be everything that Uncle Ed is not. The most obvious difference is Ms. Smith's ability to fire up a crowd with some of the most impressive oratory skills in the country.

An unabashed supporter of the tar sands, she can get an audience on its feet with lines such as: "Until demand for it [oil]disappears, the detractors and extremists can rail against it all they want."

The party recently held its annual convention in the same ballroom where Mr. Stelmach's Conservatives had held theirs months earlier. The decision was not an accident; it was intended to provoke comparisons between the two leaders. And it allowed Ms. Smith to roast the Premier for what she says has been tepid promotion of the tar sands. "You don't sit on the world's largest oil reserves and get treated as a junior partner," she said. "Yet, somehow this government has managed to achieve that."

Three members of Mr. Stelmach's party have joined Wildrose; there could be more defections to come. It's the summer of Mr. Stelmach's discontent.

Being premier of Alberta is not as easy as it once looked.

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