With the Supreme Court of Canada decision on carbon pricing, the federal Liberals clearly won the day.
The main pillar of Ottawa’s climate-change plan, to impose minimum carbon-pricing standards across the country, is upheld by Thursday’s decision. Provincial governments in Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta will have to undergo a process of radical acceptance – Canada’s carbon-pricing policy is here to stay, or at the least has become much more difficult to unwind.
But it’s a mistake to think climate policy in Canada is somehow settled, and that quarrelsome premiers such as Jason Kenney are now going to back off.
There was never a question that Mr. Kenney was going to challenge the federal carbon-price legislation – it’s hard to imagine a reality where a conservative Alberta government wouldn’t have joined Ontario and Saskatchewan in this legal fight. But a Main Street political fight over a carbon price on fuel consumption is only one part of a much broader, more complicated debate about climate and energy policy, regionalism, and federal-provincial jurisdiction.
As University of Calgary political scientist (and former Alberta cabinet minister) Ted Morton said Thursday, where you stand on the case really depends on where you sit.
“In the end, the decision is based less on the law and more on the individual judge’s understanding of Canadian federalism, and whether they are more centralist or more decentralist,” he said in an interview Thursday. And also, “on how they weigh the seriousness of the climate-change and carbon-emissions issue versus the seriousness of the collapse of the Western Canadian oil and gas sector.”
He added the Supreme Court majority decision is not only a “constitutional green light for not just the carbon tax, but all of Trudeau’s climate-change policies.”
While the court largely sided with the federal government, three justices dissented, including Justice Russell Brown, who said the federal government is leveraging the importance of climate change, and the relative popularity of its policy response, “to fundamentally alter the division of powers.” The high court’s ruling opens the door to “federal intrusion – by way of the imposition of national standards – into all areas of provincial jurisdiction, including intraprovincial trade and commerce, health, and the management of natural resources.”
On Thursday, the Alberta Premier both accepted the finality of the Supreme Court ruling and opened up a new line of argument. He talked to reporters about whether the province could someday challenge the inequity in carbon-pricing systems across the country. It’s a concern similar to one former B.C. premier Christy Clark raised when she was still in office: that cap-and-trade markets – notably of the kind in place in Quebec – don’t force as high a price on carbon as what’s in place in other provinces.
He also said he isn’t about to lay down arms on other, related fights. He said his government will continue to press its case challenging Bill C-69, which he calls the “No-More Pipelines Law,” currently before the Alberta Court of Appeal.
Still, Mr. Kenney must walk a fine political line as he both battles the federal government and works with it on the list of items where the province and Ottawa have found some common ground – including Alberta’s current system for pricing on industrial emissions, and what could be a multibillion-dollar spend on carbon capture, utilization and storage.
In the rest of Canada, there is also a tendency to view the Supreme Court decision as a pure clear-cut win for the health of the planet. It is true that it forces action and some cohesion in the national strategy. But that view sets aside the reality that electoral and regional politics also play a significant role in what’s playing out.
Policy wonk Ken Boessenkool wrote a fictional memo in The Line with advice to Ontario Premier Doug Ford headlined, “Why let Trudeau buy off his voter coalition when you could be buying off yours?” It tells the Premier to take control and design his own consumer carbon-price system – pointing out the Trudeau government is now “using carbon rebates to lure NDP and Green voters at the expense of federal Conservative voters.”
Mr. Kenney’s hyperpartisan stylings put many people off. Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley could be right when she said the Premier’s continued combative stand with Ottawa helps him distract from a weak job-creation record, and that he should have had a better back-up plan in place than just now saying he’s going to consult with Albertans about carbon pricing and how “to minimize the costs of any future policies on this province.”
But that doesn’t mean the economic anxiety felt by many in the province, or concern that Ottawa does not have Prairie voters in mind as it drafts major environmental policies, should be shrugged off. And those who now expect a retreat by a conservative Alberta government aren’t contemplating how climate and energy policies are likely to hit fossil-fuel-producing provinces in an outsized way.
With a report from Emma Graney in Calgary
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