To listen to Premier Jason Kenney and his government colleagues tell it, Alberta’s Court of Appeal has ruled that Ottawa’s Impact Assessment Act is an unlawful infringement into provincial jurisdiction, instantly overturning the federal law.
It has done nothing of the sort.
What the decision does is offer Mr. Kenney an opportunity to gloat and argue that the gobs of taxpayer money the province spent on the legal venture was all worth it: Alberta put Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government in its place.
The two sides will almost certainly meet again on this issue and I would wager it will be Mr. Trudeau who emerges victorious next time around.
To be clear, what the appeal court issued this week was an opinion, not a binding court ruling. It is the viewpoint of five judges, one of whom voted, cogently in my opinion, in the dissent. The others effectively parroted the view of Mr. Kenney and his United Conservative Party government that the IAA – formerly known as Bill C-69 and dubbed the “no more pipeline” act by the Alberta Premier – unjustly intrudes on the province’s ability to develop its natural resources.
If you’ll recall, the law brought in new guidelines around natural resource projects – ones that reflected growing concerns about the contributions oil and gas production and transportation make to greenhouse gas emissions. Still, while Mr. Kenney and other conservative voices were calling it a pipeline killer, Mr. Trudeau was rescuing the Trans Mountain pipeline project to ensure its construction.
It was never a no-more-pipeline act.
The fact is, climate change has emerged as the No. 1 threat to humanity. Ottawa does have jurisdiction over our air quality and greenhouse gas emissions more generally. And it is responsible for broad governance of this area, as is the national government in almost every other country on Earth.
As such, it needs certain powers to enforce standards that will allow Canada to be a responsible actor when it comes to our climate commitments.
Where most fair-minded people see, in the IAA, a federal government trying to bring in a law that helps build some type of over-arching environmental and climate change framework, the appeal court saw a Trojan horse-like law really designed to steal more power from the provinces.
While the majority opinion recognized the “existential threat” that is climate change, it said that the IAA was another “existential threat” to the division of powers guaranteed by the Constitution, and that concern about the environment should not override division of powers in Canada.
The court sees nefarious things inside the IAA, ones that could denude our federation and effectively render it impotent. It called the law a “breathtaking pre-emption of provincial authority,” and one that strips Albertans of “their birthright” and places the province in an “economic chokehold.” At times the language in the judgment was unnecessarily incendiary and overtly political.
If you take the opinion to its natural conclusion, there is no role for Ottawa when it comes to natural resource development. This should be the sole purview of the provinces. But what the opinion leaves unanswered is the question: What happens when B.C. doesn’t want a pipeline from Alberta running across its territory? Or Quebec theirs?
How exactly does Alberta tell those provinces they have to have a pipeline because of a “birthright”? If it were up to the provinces to decide these issues, if authority over their jurisdiction is sacrosanct as the court judgment insists, the Trans Mountain Expansion would not have been twinned to the West Coast because B.C. would have stopped it. Instead, Ottawa made it happen, not Alberta.
And I wish Mr. Kenney well trying to convince the good people of Quebec that they need a pipeline crossing their territories.
What the Alberta decision would also do, if applied federally, is render any national climate plan meaningless. The court is saying that environmental protection and stewardship is a provincial responsibility, and if the political leadership in some jurisdictions believes jobs and the economy trumps action on climate, so be it.
If this is to be the case, at what point do you cease being a country and instead become a collective of fiefdoms that in their totality don’t add up to a whole lot?
The Alberta decision shouldn’t surprise us. The same group was the only one of three provincial-level courts to rule that the national carbon tax was unconstitutional. That case was appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada where last year, in a 6-3 decision, it ruled that Ottawa did have the authority to impose a national price on carbon.
My guess is that many of the same reasons that formed the foundation of that ruling will resurface when it deals, as expected, with an appeal of this latest Alberta decision.
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