One deeply flawed federal policy on electricity was met this week by the nuclear option in Alberta’s political arsenal, the Sovereignty Act. It’s a showdown that didn’t need to be.
The Clean Electricity Regulations flew under the radar for a long time but are probably the weakest in a suite of federal policies meant to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). At issue is far more than a disagreement about how quickly to decarbonize Canada’s electricity sector. It’s a plan that disregards the stark differences between electricity systems in this massive country.
Ottawa is trying to enact a blanket rule on emissions from electricity production, establishing performance standards to reduce Canadian emissions from electricity starting in 2035. Cutting GHGs is good. But why the federal Liberals couldn’t do individual deals on this – when they were willing to do so on other key files including child care and health care, in recognition of the unique circumstances of each province – is an enduring mystery.
Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault and Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said they were blindsided by Premier Danielle Smith’s decision to introduce Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act resolution against the electricity rules on Monday. But they might not have been surprised after her government talked about the act in its recent throne speech, or after the advertising campaign against the draft regulations.
To be sure, this move by the Alberta government is also a performative venture, with the potential for many unintended consequences. For one, the regulations aren’t finalized yet. The resolution also asks Alberta’s cabinet to order all provincial entities not to enforce or co-operate in the implementation of the regulations to (the vaguely worded) “extent legally permissible.”
Ms. Smith said the people carrying out these orders will be shielded from legal consequences. But those working in the ultracomplex world of Alberta electricity regulation could decide they would rather sit this one out, and head onto retirement or the private sector – leading to bleeding of institutional knowledge.
The Alberta resolution also asks for a look at the feasibility of establishing a Crown corporation that could be a last resort builder and operator of natural gas-powered plants, something Ms. Smith argues could be needed because of federal policies. But this move toward a government role in Alberta’s market-based electricity market, which has seen recent price spikes as a result of its own quirks, might have been desirable even without the federal regulations. The idea could have been introduced without the Sovereignty Act.
Mr. Guilbeault has said “as a nation, imagine what we could do if we were all rowing in the same direction.” But that’s a difficult task to attach yourself to in provinces such as Alberta, as many of the other provinces have a long head start.
Provinces such as British Columbia and Quebec are blessed with hydrology and dams, a massive boon in an age of electrification. Alberta has cut its electricity emissions with its fast-paced shift away from coal to natural gas, as well as solar and wind (despite the unnecessary public pause on approvals). But the next part of the transition will be more difficult. Two of the leading thinkers on electricity in Alberta, no cheerleaders for the United Conservative Party government, have written the province “has credible concerns as to the pace and prescriptive nature of the regulations.”
The Alberta government’s legal position is the regulations as they stand are unconstitutional. Ottawa’s argument is it’s going after the emissions of the electricity sector rather than generation itself, the purview of the provinces. The Premier relishes the possibility of a reversal of the scenario of the past few years: One where Alberta acts and Ottawa must take the province to court to challenge its actions.
Of course, the Alberta government celebrated when in October, the Supreme Court ruled that Ottawa’s law for assessing the environmental effects of major projects is largely unconstitutional. Then again this month, when a judge ruled a federal decision labelling plastics as toxic to be unconstitutional.
Things often come in threes: A decision to put a long pause on carbon pricing in a part of the country where the Liberals were worried about declining electoral support, Atlantic Canada, told everyone the principled stand on carbon pricing could be swayed by politics.
That left an opening for conservative premiers. Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe has said he’s going to stop collecting the carbon tax on natural gas home heating come 2024. The idea of taking this wildcat-type of action, whether it be in Alberta with the Sovereignty Act or in Saskatchewan on carbon pricing, and letting the chips fall as they may, is unlikely to be met with widespread outrage in this particular moment. The mood of the country is angry and restless when it comes to the federal Liberals.