Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is threatening to sue the federal government to block its bill overhauling the environmental assessment of major resource projects, saying Ottawa has no business regulating provincially owned resources.
Mr. Kenney also invoked rising separatist sentiment in Alberta to underscore his province’s frustration with the federal government before he met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for a half hour on Thursday afternoon. He said before their discussion that he would deliver a message that both Bill C-69 and another bill that would ban oil tankers from B.C.’s northern coast need to be fundamentally changed or scrapped altogether. The Liberal government would further inflame Albertans’ sense of alienation if the bills passed, he said.
At a Senate committee hearing in the morning, Mr. Kenney took aim at Bill C-69, which oil industry supporters have dubbed the “no pipelines bill.” He said the impact-assessment legislation and the tanker law amount to a “body blow” to the province, which has yet to fully recover from a slump in crude prices five years ago.
The two bills are one of a number of legal challenges Mr. Kenney has threatened or sparked in his first days as Premier. British Columbia filed a legal challenge on Wednesday of a newly proclaimed law that would give Alberta the ability to cut off oil shipments in retaliation for B.C.’s opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. Mr. Kenney reiterated on Thursday that he had no intention of using the law any time soon.
And on Friday, Saskatchewan’s Court of Appeal is expected to issue a ruling on that province’s challenge to the federal carbon tax, another issue on which Mr. Kenney is fighting the federal Liberal government.
Mr. Kenney said on Thursday Albertans are angry and feeling alienated from the rest of Canada, given the inability of its life-blood industry to build oil pipelines through other provinces to reach non-U.S. markets. He noted a recent poll – conducted by an Angus Reid Institute in February – suggested 50 per cent of people in the province would support separation from Canada.
“That is primarily because Albertans have the sense they’ve done everything to be good Canadians, they’ve contributed hundreds of billions of their tax dollars to the rest of the country towards equalization and other transfers but now feel like everywhere we turn we get blocked in and pinned down,” Mr. Kenney told reporters after the hearing. “More and more Albertans are asking why are we being treated so unfairly.”
In addition to a possible court challenge, Mr. Kenney threatened to hold a referendum on equalization, though it is not clear what legal force such a vote would have.
Before the meeting with Mr. Trudeau, the Alberta Premier compared the pending C-69 legislation to the National Energy Program of the early 1980s. That program was enacted by Mr. Trudeau’s father, Pierre Trudeau, and provoked bitter anger from Western Canadians who viewed it as a destructive intrusion on provincial ownership and jurisdiction over resources.
Mr. Trudeau tweeted after their meeting that Albertans and all Canadians want the federal and provincial governments to work together on economic growth, action on climate change and efforts to get natural resources to international markets. Mr. Kenney told CTV’s Power Play that the two leaders had a “full and frank conversation” in which they were “very direct with one another” on their views.
Mr. Kenney said section 92A of the Constitution gives clear ownership and jurisdiction to provinces to regulate non-renewable resources. Former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed and Quebec’s René Lévesque fought successfully to maintain that provincial jurisdiction when Pierre Trudeau repatriated the Constitution from Britain in 1982.
However, University of Ottawa law professor Stewart Elgie said Mr. Kenney’s constitutional threat over C-69 is “hot air.” He cited the Supreme Court of Canada’s Oldman River dam decision from 27 years ago. The court found a project may primarily fall under provincial jurisdiction but still be subject to federal laws related to its effects in areas such as migratory birds, Indigenous people and cross-border pollution that are matters of federal concern.
Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna chided Alberta’s new Premier for raising the spectre of separatism.
“I found the language quite frankly disturbing,” she said after the committee meeting. “Talking about secession, talking about it in a way that’s polarizing. We need to bring Canadians together. Of course we need to get our resources to market and the idea that in the 21st century the environment and the economy don’t go together just doesn’t make sense.”
Ms. McKenna defended the impact-assessment bill at the Senate committee after Mr. Kenney concluded his testimony. She said only major projects that pose significant environmental risk in areas of federal jurisdiction would be assessed. She argued emissions of greenhouse gases clearly fall in the Ottawa’s sphere as it works to comply with Canada’s international commitment to combat climate change.
And she insisted the legislation would make it easier for resource projects that are in the national interest to be approved, while adding increased environmental oversight and the role of Indigenous communities in assessing projects. The minister said the government would be willing to consider Senate amendments that improve the bill but not substantial alter its intent.
Meanwhile, environmental groups complain the federal government is watering down its legislation in the face of a fierce lobbying campaign from industry and its supporters.
Mr. Kenney is also facing a fight with the federal Liberals over his plan to scrap the province’s carbon tax on consumer fuels. He has joined conservative premiers in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and New Brunswick in opposing the federal carbon levy that is imposed in provinces that do not have a provincial one.
The Saskatchewan Court of Appeal’s expected ruling on Friday is the first of several rulings that will almost certainly be appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.