The Progressive Conservatives are filibustering Ontario's cap-and-trade legislation, delaying the Liberal government's signature environmental program and raising fears the province could miss its targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Bill 172, the Climate Change Mitigation and Low-carbon Economy Act, is currently being reviewed by a legislative committee. PC committee members have used several tactics to stretch out debate, including repeatedly calling for 20-minute recesses and speaking at length to every minor amendment.
If the current pace of debate continues, the committee might not finish its work before the legislature breaks in June, which would push a final vote to the fall and make it hard for the province to get cap-and-trade in place before its scheduled launch date of Jan. 1, 2017.
The government has pledged to cut emissions to 15 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 – Ontario is currently about 6 per cent below 1990 levels – and is running out of time to meet that goal.
"We've committed to a very, very, very strict implementation plan over the next two to three years," Environment Minister Glen Murray said in an interview. "We don't have a lot of runway to solve the climate change problem. We can't afford to lose another year."
Under cap-and-trade, the province will put a cap on carbon emissions and oblige companies that want to burn carbon to buy permits. The revenue from the permits, estimated at $2-billion annually, will be put into a Greenhouse Gas Reduction Account and spent on environmental projects.
Mr. Murray said a compressed cap-and-trade implementation time-frame would make it harder for businesses to comply with the new emissions caps, because many of those businesses are counting on help from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Account to make changes to cut emissions. Among other things, the Liberals are looking to spend money to help trucking companies switch from diesel to cleaner-burning natural gas, and help factories upgrade to more energy-efficient equipment.
Tory Leader Patrick Brown last month reversed the party's long-standing opposition to carbon pricing. But he is calling for a revenue-neutral system, in which the government would cut other taxes to offset the cost of the carbon price. The PCs describe the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Account as a "slush fund" and say they worry the money will be misspent.
"This is the largest tax scheme that Ontario may ever have seen in the history of this province," Tory environment critic Lisa Thompson told The Globe and Mail on Tuesday.
She said she also fears the legislation will encourage more wind farms, which are unpopular with constituents in rural ridings such as hers.
"This government can't be trusted one iota. I will never, on my watch, allow another Green Energy Act to happen," she said. "The turbines in my area have just absolutely devastated the community."
The NDP, for its part, has long called for a cap-and-trade system and is supporting the bill.
Environment critic Peter Tabuns said that, like the PCs, he also had some problems with the legislation. But instead of stonewalling it, he negotiated a series of amendments with Mr. Murray.
Among other things, Mr. Tabuns got the Liberals to agree to report on the province's progress cutting greenhouse gas emissions every year instead of every five; ensure that the province's method for calculating emissions is the same as the United Nations' (the Liberals initially wanted to leave the environment minister more discretionary power to determine how the calculations would be done); and find ways to mitigate the cost of cap-and-trade for low-income people.
"[The Tories] don't like the bill. Fair enough. I mean, I would like it to be written in a different way too – so I put in a lot of amendments," he said. "They're just fighting the bill and that's the method they've chosen."
Environmentalists, meanwhile, are frustrated that eight years after the government first promised carbon pricing, and a year after they started working on a cap-and-trade bill, the legislation is still not law.
"The committee needs to get down to its work and get this bill moving forward," said Keith Brooks of Environmental Defence. "There's a lot of this dragging out the process and it's not necessary. We can't really afford to miss that January, 2017, launch date. We need time to set up that system. No more delay."
Editor's note. An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Account as the Green Investment Fund. This is the correct version.