Rachel Notley’s Big, Dry Tent

Rachel Notley has almost nothing in common with Lyndon Johnson.  But in developing her climate change strategy the Alberta Premier followed the practical political advice of the Texan who was US President in the 1960s.

Talking about the fearsome J. Edgar Hoover, Johnson pithily observed: “Better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside pissing in.”

What is often forgotten about LBJ is that before he became president he was a master strategist in the Senate—a talent that suited him well when he managed against all odds to get a Civil Rights Act through a Congress dominated by southern Democrats.


Rachel Notley’s challenge has been to reassure the fiercely skeptical Alberta business elites that were horrified to wake up last May to discover the NDP had risen to power.

With the economy already hammered by plummeting oil prices, they feared that the New Democrats would inflict further damage through a climate change plan that would drive up costs and cripple the oil sands.

Notley sagely followed the LBJ maxim and brought the oil patch into the tent.

First, she appointed Andrew Leach a widely-respected professor of energy policy at the University of Alberta to chair her advisory panel. And she ensured that energy interests were strongly represented, with panellists from Suncor and Enbridge.

The premier’s frank advice to her constituents was that if they did not take decisive action on climate change, they would be sideswiped by the actions of others.

The oil sands have battered the global reputation of both Alberta and Canada. I got a sense of the level of hostility while covering a debate at the European Parliament in Brussels in 2013, where they talking about a measure that would have tarred oil sands crude as dirtier than other sources.

“>EU Oil Sands Debate

The initiative never passed.  But as a Canadian, and a graduate of the University of Alberta, it was an eye-opener.  The World’s Most Polite Nation™ was being painted as a climate villain, the black hat threatening to sink Tuvalu for the sake of making billions from bitumen.

Alberta is in desperate need of an international image makeover.

Increasingly the business community worldwide is seeing carbon-based industries as bad investments.  No less a figure than Bank of England Governor Mark Carney is warning of the risks.

Mark Carney on carbon

Business leaders in the Alberta can read the financial press as well as the rest of us and now seem to be buying Rachel Notley’s view that they better try to be part of the solution.

The Calgary-based power company TransAlta and its CEO Dawn Farrell presciently announced that it would phase out coal-fired generation by about 2030 and were rewarded with a big jump in share price when the premier’s plan called for the same measure province wide.

TransAlta stock up on climate change plan

When Notley rolled out her climate program the rookie premier and her team staged a masterwork of political imagery.  Standing with her were not only environmentalists and a First Nation leader in traditional garb, but leaders in the petroleum industry.

Reporters covering the event must have wondered if they were hallucinating when they saw both Suncor and Greenpeace praising the same plan.

It was a home run in political communications, or in energy terms maybe we should say a gusher—paving the way for a triumphant arrival for Notley at the First Ministers conference on climate change.

There is much that can still go awry:  many environmentalists will not be assuaged by anything less than a complete shutdown of oil sands operations, and the oil patch may yet chafe at the carbon tax.

But in the launch of her plan Rachel Notley adroitly squared a circle in a way that Lyndon Johnson would have admired.