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Alberta Premier Danielle Smith responds to a question during a news conference after a meeting of western premiers, in Whistler, B.C., on June 27.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith’s promise to apply the sovereignty act to protect provincial power companies from proposed federal clean-electricity regulations is a move Ottawa argues is at odds with continuing “good faith” federal-provincial talks.

The Alberta Premier, on her weekly Saturday radio show, confirmed a CBC report that she planned to use the act on Monday because Ottawa’s ambitions to decarbonize the country’s electricity grid by 2035 are unconstitutional.

Explainer: Alberta’s Danielle Smith invokes the sovereignty act for the first time. What happens next?

The act, adopted last December, was the first piece of legislation her government tabled after she won leadership of the United Conservative Party and premiership last fall.

The Premier said she’d “had it” with federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault, who she labelled “a maverick” who “doesn’t seem to care about the law,” because electricity falls under provincial jurisdiction. She declined to share her plans, saying “people will have to wait until Monday.”

Ms. Smith said Alberta’s power generators would be able to reach emissions targets by 2050 but can’t do so by 2035, as Ottawa wants. “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.”

Mr. Guilbeault said in an e-mailed statement Sunday that his government has “been collaborating in good faith on clean-electricity investments and regulations” with the province in a working group. That group was “created at the request of Alberta with the express intent to work through these issues collaboratively.” He added that Alberta “has never brought up a constitutional veto at the negotiating table.”

Mr. Guilbeault has also dismissed as fear-mongering “false assertions over jail time for non-compliance” with the impending regulations, noting in a recent column that Ottawa has only issued warnings, compliance orders or fines under the 1999 Environmental Protection Act.

A leading environmental-law expert criticized Alberta’s impending action as little more than political sabre rattling. “Premier Smith knows Ottawa has the power to bring in these regulations,” said University of Ottawa law professor Stewart Elgie, founder of non-profit environmental-law organization Ecojustice.

“The constitutional rhetoric is just a smokescreen,” he said. “This is really a political disagreement about how quickly we should move to clean energy.”

The Alberta Sovereignty within a United Canada Act asserts the province’s interests to push back on federal laws or policies deemed to hurt Alberta and interfere with its constitutional rights.

Under the act, any minister can move in the legislature to identify the offending initiative and propose countermeasures. If members vote in favour, the cabinet must then ensure the proposed action is constitutional and legal before proceeding.

Alberta has yet to use the law, despite repeated threats by Ms. Smith to put it into action.

Bruce Pardy, executive director of Rights Probe and a law professor at Queen’s University, said the legislature could adopt a resolution directing provincial agencies and officers to not enforce federal measures, which “wouldn’t limit federal jurisdiction but could create administrative tangles.”

“And Alberta is on good ground constitutionally,” he said. “Few aspects of the Constitution are more clear than exclusive provincial jurisdiction over natural resources and electricity.”

Bruce Lourie, president of the Ivey Foundation, a Toronto-based climate-policy think tank, faulted both governments in their handling of “a really big, complicated issue.” He said that while Ms. Smith “has overreacted,” the federal government could have done a better job working in advance with jurisdictions that rely more on fossil fuels for their electricity to get “a clear understanding of what their needs were.”

“The politics are getting very much in the way of a complex conversation of how you transition the power assets of a jurisdiction,” he added. “I think this was not a well-delivered plan on the part of the federal government.”

Ottawa has acknowledged from the start that its Clean Electricity Strategy depends on buy-in from provinces and territories, given their jurisdiction over electricity.

When they introduced the strategy last summer, Mr. Guilbeault and Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson heralded the building of a net-zero electrical grid in a report as “a nation-building project of unprecedented scale and importance.” The report said it would save consumers money and create jobs and prosperity.

But Alberta has pushed back for months, arguing that it cannot decarbonize its grid in time to meet Ottawa’s objectives without causing economic and social damage. 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.

Ms. Smith has said her government had no intention of meeting the 2035 deadline and launched a national $8-million advertising campaign to persuade Canadians to back her position. Alberta has also pushed back against Ottawa regarding emissions-reduction targets for its oil and gas sector.

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. By contrast, nearly three-quarters of Alberta’s electricity comes from natural gas.

Alberta 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 shows Alberta’s electricity sector produced 32.7 megatonnes of greenhouse-gas emissions in 2020, more than half the national total. New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan also rely on fossil fuels for most electrical power.

Mr. Guilbeault has 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.

He maintains that Alberta is well suited for solar and wind-power generation, which, along with carbon capture and storage projects in the oil and gas sector, can help the province benefit from the energy transition.

Prof Elgie, from the University of Ottawa, said: “The world is moving to clean electricity. Alberta needs to keep pace or it will miss out” on billions of dollars in investments and jobs. “Businesses want to invest in places that have clean power.”

The clean-electricity initiative is one of several measures by the federal government to meet international climate-change goals under the Paris accords, and not the only one to spark controversy.

Earlier this fall, the federal government exempted home heating oil from its carbon-pricing regime, a move seen by many as a concession to Liberal-friendly Atlantic Canadians – and which ignited calls from other provinces for more carbon-pricing concessions.

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