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This was supposed to be Justin Trudeau's show, but he couldn't stop B.C.'s Christy Clark from displaying her own flair for theatre.

The climate-change summit with the premiers was to mark the culmination of Mr. Trudeau's first full year of prime ministership, sealing it with a pan-Canadian deal on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. It's a big deal. Unprecedented. The PM's aides had so-called stakeholders, such as environmental groups, lined up to praise the agreement. And Mr. Trudeau was expecting to take a bow at 5:30 p.m.

Then Ms. Clark stole the limelight. She is months away from an election, and was arguing the deal was unfair to B.C. She claimed her province's $30-a-tonne carbon tax is twice as costly as the cap-and-trade price that Ontarians and Quebeckers will pay. And B.C., she said, wouldn't sign on to a deal that would raise carbon taxes to $50 in 2022 – as Mr. Trudeau insists – unless all provinces will pay the same.

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Her claim that B.C's carbon price would be double Ontario's was exaggerated, and angry federal Liberals claimed it was trotted out at the last minute so Ms. Clark could play to the small-c conservatives whose support she needs in next May's election. Her performance upset the Trudeau government's careful staging.

In the end, the differences were covered over in a deal to have an independent study of whether B.C.'s carbon tax is equivalent to Ontario and Quebec's cap-and-trade system, to be done by 2020 – after the first ministers' re-election campaigns. The compromise also includes language that B.C. could "determine its own path" to reducing its emissions after 2022 based on the results – so Ms. Clark claimed she won't have to raise carbon taxes unless other provinces face the same burden.

Ms. Clark had made her point. Her threat to hold up the deal allowed her to stand up on camera and say she fought for her province to get a fair deal.

It had also enraged Mr. Trudeau's team. They had expected Saskatchewan's Brad Wall to refuse to sign on, but that fit their script – a lone recalcitrant premier arguing it will hurt his province's suffering oil and gas industry. But they thought Ms. Clark was onside. Instead, she was arguing that the climate deal had "regional inequity baked in." It was intrigue. Manitoba pulled back. That threatened to isolate Alberta's Rachel Notley as the only Western premier on board.

At just about the time that Mr. Trudeau was initially scheduled to hold a press conference announcing a deal, Ms. Clark went out to tell reporters she was still fighting for B.C. But then she went back in and the compromise was struck.

It did give Mr. Trudeau his big deal. It really is unprecedented. It's the first time any prime minister has struck a deal with premiers to address climate change. In fact, it's the first substantial deal of any kind a PM has struck with premiers for a decade.

It includes both carbon pricing and regulations. There will be arguing over whether it does enough, but it's the first federal-provincial plan to make a serious dent.

When he was elected last year, few expected Mr. Trudeau would really drive to strike a deal with premiers that would include carbon pricing and substantive regulations, and get almost all of them to sign. And that came just after he approved a controversial pipeline that pleased the country's oil patch, too.

But you didn't have to look too far into the conference his government staged in Ottawa to see the challenges that Mr. Trudeau's climate policies face now.

U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden attended the first part of the first ministers' climate conference to preach that the United States' march to action on climate change will not be stopped by the "near-term" policies of Donald Trump's administration. But with Mr. Trump promising to ditch climate commitments and promote coal, there will be new accusations that Mr. Trudeau's climate policies will hurt competitiveness.

Ms. Clark's complaint that the deal might allow a province to impose a lower carbon price than others will not go away quickly – because some provinces will have cap-and-trade systems and some a carbon tax, and it is hard to compare. Even the assessment promised for 2020 may not stifle those complaints.

But Mr. Trudeau did get to take his bow. Ms. Clark interrupted the timing, but he will take credit for the deal, and use it as a foundation for his re-election campaign in 2019.

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