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gary mason

Now that Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall has declared his opposition to a pan-national price on carbon, the real fun begins.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is going to discover why trying to reach common accord among the provinces is often like herding cats.

But a national carbon policy is not just any old promise.

It was a central tenet of Mr. Trudeau's election pledge to institute real change on this front.

It was partly the reason so many young people flocked to his campaign and why he was welcomed so enthusiastically at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where Tesla-driving attendees view him as being among the vanguard of a new generation of political leadership committed to substantive and progressive action on climate policy.

But those who go to Davos often don't live in the world of realpolitik.

Mr. Trudeau does.

And with Mr. Wall's open declaration that he will oppose any plan to institute a national minimum price on greenhouse-gas emissions, the Prime Minister will now have to see what fallout, if any, there is from the Saskatchewan Premier's utterings on the issue.

He will likely already have a pretty good indication before the first ministers gather in Vancouver the first week of March to discuss what a national climate strategy might look like.

The obvious questions areis: Will anyone back Mr. Wall's position? Are there provinces inclined to support a national carbon-price plan, but only if everyone signs on?

Mr. Wall's Saskatchewan Party is arguably the most conservative political institution in the country, although you might get an argument from some who believe that title belongs to Christy Clark's Liberals in British Columbia.

Regardless, a carbon tax was always going to be a tough sell in Saskatchewan, and the Premier has made it clear that his province's contribution towards finding a solution to reducing GHG emissions was in research, particularly the work that has been done in the area of carbon capture and storage.

The good news for Mr. Trudeau is that many of the most populous provinces are already on-side with carbon pricing. British Columbia has had a price on carbon since 2008; Alberta has announced it will be introducing a carbon tax, while Ontario and Quebec are moving to a cap-and-trade model to price GHG emissions. Manitoba's NDP government has been against a carbon tax, but plans to use a cap-and-trade system to penalize some heavy emitters in the province. Then again, there is a chance the NDP, badly trailing in the polls, may not be the government come the next election in April. If the Manitoba Progressive Conservatives get in, who knows what position they will take on a national carbon tax.

Meanwhile, in the Maritimes, none of the provinces has a carbon tax, but those occupying the Premier's offices all seem open to at least discussing the possibility of one.

If you were a negotiator trying to reach a national carbon-pricing accord, you'd likely feel you were starting from a fairly favourable position, with key jurisdictions already on board and a handful of others open to talking. That still leaves Mr. Trudeau with a problem when it comes to Saskatchewan, as Mr. Wall seems fairly dug in on his position.

The Saskatchewan Premier is already brazenly talking about the economic advantage his province would have if other jurisdictions introduced a carbon tax and his didn't. "I don't want a level playing field for our province," he told The Globe and Mail this week.

And therein lies Mr. Trudeau's problem. Provinces are not going to abide by giving Mr. Wall the benefit that he seeks, especially in these uncertain economic times. You can just imagine the grief Rachel Notley would receive in Alberta if she were to become a signatory to a carbon pricing accord that other provinces opted out of, potentially giving them a further leg up on a province that has already been taken to its knees because of the drop in oil prices.

It will be fascinating to see how Canada's new Prime Minister handles this file, certainly one of the most important on his desk. Failure is not an option. And yet when it comes to attempts to reach federal-provincial accords in this country, there is a long and illustrious history of just that.