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Alberta finally shifted left in these elections. But can it go green?

Canadian Politics

Pigeon Lake, AB at sunset • Photo by WinterE229

Canada’s appetite for political change was demonstrated by the surprising win of the New Democratic Party (NDP) in Alberta’s elections, which ended 44 years of the same government. With its oil wealth and longtime conservative leadership, the province is often called Canada’s Texas. The election reflects the choice by Albertans (and Canadians more broadly) to reject what they have been told about their economy’s dependence on oil and gas at the expense of renewable energy investment and economic diversification.

Albertans have convincingly thrown their support behind provincial NDP leader Rachel Notley for several reasons. One was her desire to change the status quo for the benefit of ordinary people. Another was that she presented a complete economic vision that was worth supporting. While government leaders in the past have insisted the only way for Alberta to remain economically stable is through oil and gas investment, the NDP expressed a more confident belief that Albertans have the ingenuity, skills and workforce to build a more diversified economy that can shield the province from the volatile boom-and-bust cycle of the resource markets.

History and global precedent were also at work. Albertans have watched for decades as corporations exploited their valuable natural resources without contributing enough to the future of the province. When the oil bubble burst this past year, Albertans woke up to the reality they were left with crumbling infrastructure, not enough schools and a healthcare system that was broken. With the lowest corporate tax rates in Canada and little money put aside for prosperity and contingency, Alberta has fallen behind other oil-rich jurisdictions like Norway, which has used its trillion-dollar, resource-generated sovereign wealth fund to remain prosperous in the face of falling oil prices. Notley and the NDP have vowed to raise corporate taxes and to review and potentially increase oil royalties.

On top of the government’s failure to reinvest revenue into the province, Albertans have faced an increasingly tarnished global reputation as little has been done to protect the environment and promote investor confidence in the notoriously polluting oilsands operations. The unchecked growth of emissions from the oilsands is the single biggest reason why Canada is unlikely to meet its international climate commitments. Notley calls this failure Alberta’s “black eye” and has vowed to rebuild trust. She’s promised to phase out coal-fired power, increase transit investment, implement energy efficiency and renewable energy strategies, and bring in stronger environmental standards, monitoring and enforcement.

The NDP platform is not entirely good news for the environment, however. Although she has spoken against the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline project from Alberta to the Pacific coast, Notley has said another Pacific-bound pipeline project — Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion — is “worthy of discussion.” She has also mentioned being “interested” in the proposed Energy East pipeline linking the oilsands to the Atlantic provinces. Regarding the Keystone XL Pipeline, Notley says she won’t lobby for approval from US President Barack Obama.

In working out the details of its environmental policy, the Alberta NDP should consider the example of California Governor Jerry Brown. When Brown came to power for the second time in 2011, he faced a situation similar to that of Notley and the NDP. California’s economy was struggling to recover from the global economic meltdown and Brown faced fierce opposition from oil and gas interests over his plan to diversify the state’s economy and drive investment in clean energy. Governor Brown stuck to his campaign promises, putting a price on carbon pollution, investing in clean technologies and driving major public transportation projects. The result has been economic recovery and newfound resilience – exactly what Alberta needs.

Rachel Notley and the Alberta NDP have taken the first steps toward change in a province that was thought to be unwaveringly conservative until a month ago. They have shown confidence in the creativity and ingenuity of the province’s people. They have rejected the steamroller approach to resource development in favor of collaboration. Now comes the real test of the province’s new leadership. Will the NDP commit to decisions that will strengthen Alberta’s place in the world’s clean energy economy, clean its air and protect its environment?

Alberta has a chance to make real progress ahead of the United Nations climate conference in Paris in December, where the world will be expecting high-polluting regions to commit to positive change. The people of Alberta want to be part of that conversation – Notley should make sure their voice is heard.

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