Stelmach finds his twin in Texas

The Alberta Premier and Texas Governor are a lot alike—except when it comes to federal stimulus


Texas Governor Rick Perry, an articulate former Air Force pilot with Redfordesque good looks, has a few things in common with Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach—no kidding. Both have farming roots, Perry’s in cotton, Stelmach’s in cattle. As a member of the Texas House of Representatives, Perry, a Republican, sat with the “Pit Bulls,” a group of lawmakers committed to no-frills budgets; Stelmach was a “Deep Sixer,” a similarly bellicose band of fiscally conservative MLAs. This week, Perry becomes the longest-serving governor in Texas history; Stelmach leads the Progressive Conservatives, in power since 1971, also a long run. Both preside over energy-rich jurisdictions that can still generate jobs mid-recession, even as they emit a pall of greenhouse gases.

No wonder, then, that this week Stelmach has been in Austin meeting his twin—a tête-à-tête dubbed the first Texas-Alberta Summit. They have more to talk about now than ever, what with two federal leaders—Barack Obama starting Jan. 20, Stephen Harper even now—poised to introduce dramatic new emissions regulations. Both like to boost the green measures they’ve already adopted: Texas has more wind energy capacity than any other state, for example. Stelmach has sunk $2 billion into carbon capture and storage—the main plank in Alberta’s efforts to curb emissions—and another $2 billion into transit. Yet both remain uneasy with the new fossil-fuels-bad orthodoxy. When Perry tells the Wall Street Journal, as he did last week, that new federal regulations would be “absolutely economically disastrous” and will “stifle innovation,” it might as well be Stelmach talking.

In Austin today, it was Stelmach’s turn, as the summit’s keynote speaker. Carbon capture and storage and other green technologies were central to the speech. Such innovations, Stelmach told the Austin crowd, “would do a lot more to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions than punitive taxes that hurt those jurisdictions that supply our continent’s energy.” Not key to Stelmach’s address, however, was the issue of federal stimulus (or bailout, depending on your politics)—likely because, for all their similarities, Stelmach and Perry differ on this point. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece that he co-wrote with South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, Perry warned that doling out federal money to recession-sick industry risks promoting a “ ‘bailout mentality’ where we look to government rather than ourselves for solutions.” Perry has nothing to lose objecting to federal bailouts—healthy Texas has little chance of benefiting from the D.C. dole. Stelmach, on the other hand, wants his lolly.

In fact, today, the very day he was to deliver his speech in Austin, Stelmach released a letter dispatched to Ottawa Monday—a veritable laundry list of demands delivered to Stephen Harper in the ramp up to next month’s First Ministers meeting. Described in government literature as an outline of “Alberta’s priorities for the federal budget,” the letter reiterates Stelmach’s earlier insistence that he have a seat at the table during any climate change talks between Harper and Obama, and that Ottawa match Alberta’s $2 billion commitment to carbon capture and storage. (The letter also asks the Prime Minister to consider internal Canadian free trade—an arrangement akin to the TILMA agreement between Alberta and British Columbia—and fast-tracking for federal-provincial infrastructure approvals.)

The call for more federal money to go toward carbon capture and storage isn’t new, but it’s increasingly being framed by Alberta as an east vs. west issue. Last week, in a bid to secure a bit of whatever stimulus the feds provide Ontario’s ailing auto sector—this before Industry Minister Tony Clement’s promise of $3.3 billion, contingent on a U.S. package, and before mining and forestry became potential recipients—Stelmach called upon Ottawa to funnel money his way. After all, he hinted, Alberta’s carbon capture and storage will help Canada as a whole meet its emissions commitments. The feds have so far earmarked just $250 million for the technology, and that’s heading to Saskatchewan. “If it’s to become Canada’s carbon capture and storage, then we would expect some support financially,” Stelmach said, before adding, pointedly—“I believe the federal government is looking to support Ontario at this particular time with respect to the auto industry.”

It’s an appeal Harper may have trouble dismissing, though his minions try. Sure, carbon capture and storage is key to realizing greenhouse gas reductions, Environment Minister Jim Prentice told Maclean’s last week from Poznan, Poland, where he was attending international climate change talks. “Having said that, there has been a sizable amount of public funds, primarily by the Alberta government but also by the federal government, invested in carbon capture and storage. The current priority is the successful expenditure and investment of those moneys.” In other words, hold the gas, just not your breath.

Stelmach shouldn’t be faulted for trying to maneuver the needs of Alberta’s energy sector onto Ottawa’s stimulus agenda. “The industry is struggling through the same kind of credit and financial crisis as are other industries,” says Greg Stringham, of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. And Stelmach, as a Western premier, is heir to a peculiar legacy of Canadian politics: potent regional angst. If Ontario—where they make the cars and trucks that burn the fuel—gets bailout money, why not Alberta?

It’s an argument Texas Governor Rick Perry would likely use, if only he could. Last year, at Perry’s second inaugural ball, right-wing rocker Ted Nugent took to the stage wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a Confederate flag, a symbol of thwarted southern aspirations and, for many, a reminder of American slavery (the governor later said he was fine with Nugent’s sartorial choice). Perry, who replaced George W. Bush in Austin back in 2000, has had an easy time of it over the past eight years; never mind Nugent’s T-shirt, a Democrat’s inauguration in Washington is unlikely to mean good times for a Texas Republican. But Stelmach still has a fellow Tory in Ottawa, and a Calgary MP. He’s much more likely to get a sympathetic hearing. If that means anything.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.