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Alberta Premier Danielle Smith speaks on invoking her government’s sovereignty act over federal clean energy regulations, in Edmonton on Nov. 27.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith invoked the province’s sovereignty act on Monday, marking the first use of the signature law enacted last year.

The motion takes aim at Ottawa’s draft Clean Electricity Regulations, which call for an electricity grid that produces net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2035. Alberta believes the proposal infringes on the province’s constitutional right to manage its electricity industry, and that the 2035 goal is unrealistic.

Here’s everything to know so far.

What is the Alberta Sovereignty Act?

The Alberta Sovereignty within a United Canada Act is designed to give the Alberta legislature the power to reject federal laws or regulations that it believes will “negatively impact the province” or those it considers “unconstitutional” or beyond Ottawa’s jurisdictional scope.

The Alberta Legislature passed the controversial sovereignty act in December 2022, but removed a provision that would have granted the cabinet the ability to bypass the legislature and rewrite laws as it saw fit. It was the first piece of legislation Ms. Smith’s government tabled after she won leadership of the United Conservative Party (UCP) and premiership last fall.

How does the Alberta Sovereignty Act work?

Under the act, any minister in Alberta’s legislative assembly can pass a motion that identifies a specific federal program or legislation as unconstitutional or causing harm to Albertans. If members vote in favour, the cabinet must then ensure the proposed action is constitutional and legal before proceeding.

Here are a few stages of how the act will be used, according to the Province of Alberta’s website:

  • Motion for resolution: The premier or a minister must introduce a motion for a resolution to use the act. The motion must identify a federal matter deemed unconstitutional or causing harm to Alberta, and proposes measures cabinet should take in response.
  • Debate and vote: MLAs will debate the motion and then vote for or against it. If a majority of MLAs vote in favour of the motion, the resolution is passed.
  • Legal review: Cabinet will review proposed next steps to make sure the proposed actions are constitutional and legal. If such a motion passes, cabinet can then direct a minister to exercise their legislative or regulatory powers, give directives to provincial entities, amend enactments or perform other unidentified actions.

The act could be used, for example, to fight federal regulation of new energy projects, climate change legislation, vaccination policies and gun-control laws – issues that have historically been divisive in Alberta. The law has not been tested in court, and experts have questioned its constitutionality.

Why is Premier Danielle Smith currently invoking the Act?

Ms. Smith and the governing UCP contend Ottawa’s draft Clean Electricity Regulations would infringe on Alberta’s constitutional right to manage its electricity industry. Electricity falls under provincial jurisdiction in Canada.

She has also said Ottawa’s 2035 goal is unrealistic in the province, which relies heavily on natural gas, a producer of greenhouse gas emissions, to generate power.

Alberta has pushed back on Ottawa’s proposal for months, arguing that it cannot decarbonize its grid in time to meet Ottawa’s 2035 objectives without causing economic and social damage. “We will not put our operators at risk of going to jail if they do not achieve the targets which have been set, which we believe are unachievable,” Ms. Smith said on her weekly radio show.

The Alberta Electric System Operator said in September that meeting the 2035 target would leave the province with insufficient power to satisfy demand, leading to brownouts and higher rates, burdening the system with $118-billion in higher wholesale energy costs.

Monday’s motion also calls on the Alberta government to empower provincial officials and regulators to opt out of implementing or enforcing federal rules tied to the 2035 net-zero grid – but not to the point that they break the law. Ms. Smith said her government will work out a provision to shield officials from prosecution, should things come to that.

What are Ottawa’s Clean Electricity Regulations?

Ottawa introduced details of its proposed Clean Electricity Regulations in August. The draft electricity regulations aim to create a net-zero emissions power grid in Canada by 2035, but Alberta says the province’s power generators can only reach that goal by 2050.

The crux of the draft regulations is a cap, starting in 2035, on greenhouse gas emissions from each large generating facility. It’s being proposed at a level (30 tonnes a gigawatt hour) that would allow gas plants with carbon capture technology to keep operating, but require those lacking it to curb output.

The government also emphasized that the regulations will be “technology neutral,” meaning that they will not reward or punish certain types of non-emitting power – including nuclear and hydro, in addition to newer forms of renewables – compared to others.

Earlier this year, a report from the Parliamentary Budget Office found that the policy will cost Saskatchewan, Alberta and Newfoundland and Labrador the most – because their economies are more fossil-fuel dependent.

What implications could the regulations have for Alberta’s industry?

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TransAlta wind turbines at a wind farm near Pincher Creek, Alta., on March 9, 2016.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

The majority of Alberta’s electricity – nearly three-quarters – currently comes from natural gas. The province is in the final stages of weaning itself off coal, which has cut its grid’s emissions by 44 per cent since 2005. Federal data show Alberta’s electricity sector produced 32.7 megatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in 2020, more than half the national total.

Premiers push back on Ottawa’s clean energy policies

The federal government’s plan has been an easier sell in other provinces. Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, British Columbia, Newfoundland and Labrador and Prince Edward Island already rely on hydro, nuclear or wind for most electricity generation. For example, hydroelectricity makes up 80 per cent of electricity in British Columbia and Quebec.

What is Ottawa saying in response?

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Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault arrives for a media availability on Alberta's invocation of the sovereignty act in Ottawa on Nov. 27.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

The federal government has denied that its proposed electricity regulations threaten Alberta to the degree claimed by Ms. Smith.

Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault and Energy and Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said in a joint statement that Ms. Smith is “choosing to create fear and uncertainty over collaboration and positive results” for Albertans. The federal ministers also noted that a working group made up of officials from Alberta and the federal government, which Alberta requested, had “several productive meetings,” most of which focused on the draft Clean Electricity Regulations.

Leading up to its announcement of the proposal, the federal government signalled that the primary objective was to discourage investments in new unabated gas power plants, and has repeatedly indicated that it was not aiming to force abrupt shutdowns of existing facilities.

Mr. Guilbeault has also said he is willing to be flexible with Alberta by allowing electricity-producing natural-gas plants to operate past 2035, leaving the province’s grid to reach carbon-neutrality closer to 2050, in line with Ms. Smith’s aims.

What happens next?

Ms. Smith said that if Ottawa proceeds, the fight will end up in court. Alberta’s motion, she said, is designed to help the courts understand the province’s position. By invoking the sovereignty act, Ms. Smith said, she is sending a message that Alberta is “serious” about pushing back against Ottawa’s 2035 strategy.

“We’re creating an opportunity for the federal government to do the right thing and back down,” she told reporters.

The motion also instructs the provincial government to “explore the feasibility and effectiveness” of establishing a Crown corporation that could defy Ottawa’s desire to limit electricity generation from natural gas. The corporation, Ms. Smith told reporters on Monday, would be a “last resort,” and might purchase power-generating infrastructure as a way of shielding the province’s grid from Ottawa.

With files from Carrie Tait, Sean Silcoff, Adam Radwanski, Emma Graney, Marieke Walsh and The Canadian Press.

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