Justin Trudeau’s goals to ease Alberta’s alienation and dramatically reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions are about to collide in a series of looming regulatory decisions his government must make.
In rapid succession, those decisions – on whether Alberta’s plans to reduce its industrial emissions of carbon and methane meet federal standards, and whether to allow a massive new oil sands mine in the province’s north – will put new Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson and his cabinet colleagues in a decidedly awkward position.
Aggrieved Albertans would view a thumbs-down on any of those three fronts as the latest proof the Prime Minister is trying to kill the oil-and-gas industry, fuelling national-unity fears.
For that reason, concern is mounting among environmentalists that the Liberals will choose the path of least resistance and give lots of green lights. And that could set up Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals for criticism that they are making a mockery of their goal to exceed Canada’s commitments for emissions reductions under the Paris Agreement.
Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals seem to know a storm is coming over these choices. But some will be more contentious than others, despite the potential for a cumulative impact on perceptions.
Of the three, industrial carbon pricing seems most assured of Alberta’s preferred outcome – acceptance that the province is sufficiently in line with national requirements to prevent Ottawa from imposing its own pricing regime – and the least controversial.
Alberta’s new Technology Innovation and Emissions Reduction (TIER) regulations, which Jason Kenney’s government announced in late October, are generally recognized as a serious industrial carbon policy – no sure thing for a Premier who eliminated his predecessor’s carbon price for consumers, and is in court fighting Ottawa’s imposition of its own consumer carbon tax.
Mr. Kenney’s version of TIER is easier on large industrial emitters (primarily oil and gas) than that of NDP premier Rachel Notley, mostly because it sets reduction targets based on each company’s past emissions rather than industry standards. But it’s somewhat more ambitious when it comes to curbing emissions from electricity generation. Most importantly, from a federal perspective, it seems to broadly meet Ottawa’s requirement to charge emitters $30 for each tonne of carbon above the limits.
The biggest point of contention on the industrial price is that Mr. Kenney’s government has not committed to raise it starting in 2021, as the federal framework requires. But Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals will likely cross that bridge when they come to it, and announce soon that Alberta’s policy is good enough for 2020 at least.
Much, much messier is the situation around methane, a more potent greenhouse gas also released through oil-and-gas extraction.
As with carbon, Ottawa gave provinces a window to introduce methane-reduction policies and avoid a federal version. The federal and provincial models are so complicated they are not easy to compare. But environmental groups say that Alberta’s, which dates back to Ms. Notley’s government, is insufficient when it comes to inspection and enforcement to reduce methane leaks.
Federal sources don’t dispute that. But there is also an obvious desire to spare industry from conflicting federal and provincial rules. That raises the possibility the January deadline to meet federal requirements will be extended, and a compromise made in which Alberta toughens its plans just enough for Ottawa to declare victory, but not to actually meet its goal of reducing methane emissions by more than 40 per cent by 2025.
If methane causes the most behind-the-scenes wrangling, the decision on the Frontier oil sands mine – which would be one of the largest extraction projects in the province’s history – will cause the most public debate.
Proposed by Teck Resources Ltd., the 29,000-hectare northern Alberta project was recommended for approval this year by a joint federal-provincial panel that also acknowledged it would have major environmental impact. It now effectively sits with cabinet.
Amid uncertainty about long-term demand and market access for Alberta’s oil, it’s unclear whether the Frontier mine could secure enough capital to proceed. That could play into its federal approval: The Liberals won’t be eager to oppose an economic boon that might not happen anyway.
But while environmental groups have been oddly muted on the proposal to date, they’re starting to campaign against it.
For them, the Frontier project represents the best of these opportunities to hold Mr. Trudeau to account. Compared with something more confusing, such as methane rules, it’s easy to explain how endorsing a big increase in oil extraction would be at odds with the Liberals’ commitments on emission reductions.
And if the project gets approved anyway, it will still be helpful for environmentalists to raise its profile. The more the Liberals are seen as catering to the resource sector, the more pressure can be brought on them to make up for it.
After all, it’s not as though these decisions will end cabinet’s challenges in balancing environmental goals with economic and unity ones.
What happens in the next few months – where the Liberals land on these matters, and how they shape their message – will go a long way toward setting the tone and the expectations that will follow.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.