The country’s premiers unanimously called for fairness in Ottawa’s climate and affordability policies, almost two weeks after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau exempted home heating oil from his marquee carbon price plan and changed the terms of a heating retrofit program, moves that disproportionately benefit Atlantic Canada.
In a rare show of unity, premiers of all political stripes criticized Mr. Trudeau’s approach at a news conference in Halifax on Monday. All but two provincial leaders also said the federal government should extend its carbon price exemption to all home heating fuels, not just heating oil.
Meanwhile, on Parliament Hill, the minority Liberals again rejected the idea of introducing any further exemptions to the carbon price. Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault suggested he wouldn’t stay in his role if the government made more carveouts.
After more than a week at the centre of a political firestorm over the issue, the Liberals, with the help of the Bloc Québécois, defeated a Conservative motion to exempt all home heating fuels from the carbon price.
The Liberals announced on Oct. 26 that home heating oil, which is most widely used in the Atlantic provinces, would be exempt from the carbon price for more than three years. Ottawa also doubled the rural carbon price rebate for all provinces subject to the federal levy, and expanded an existing heat pump program to fully subsidize the costs of switching from heating oil for low-income families in three Atlantic provinces.
The federal carbon price puts an increasing price on carbon emissions, with the goal of incentivizing consumers to change their behaviour. It applies to all provinces except British Columbia and Quebec, which have implemented their own carbon pricing schemes.
The government made its changes after months of heavy lobbying by Liberal MPs from the Atlantic provinces, where the federal carbon price replaced provincial levies in July. Since then, support for the Liberals in Atlantic Canada, the party’s only rural stronghold, has plummeted. Public polling shows that the opposition Conservatives have increased their support in the region.
The Prime Minister announced the changes alongside his East Coast MPs, and credited them for the shift, which he said would address affordability pressures. But amid growing anger from premiers, the government has altered its explanation for the changes, saying they are national in scope, and aimed at entirely phasing out heating oil in favour of lower-emitting alternatives.
That argument has not swayed the premiers. At Monday’s news conference, the leaders of all the provinces now subject to the federal carbon price said Ottawa needs to expand its home heating oil exemption to include other fuels.
“I understand the concerns from other parts of the country, and I would ask that the federal government address those concerns,” Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston said.
Mr. Houston, who is the chair of the Council of the Federation, said he believes the carbon price should ultimately be removed entirely.
Wab Kinew, Manitoba’s newly elected NDP Premier, said he wants an exemption for home heating fuels that would also benefit his province, where the majority of households rely on natural gas. He told reporters his government had already asked for an exemption before Ottawa announced the carveout for home heating oil.
“There should be a similar consideration given to the people of Manitoba to get us through this period of economic pain,” Mr. Kinew said.
PEI’s Dennis King said the current controversy could have been avoided if it weren’t for Ottawa’s “very rigid political doctrine” on carbon pricing. He said anyone who criticizes the policy is dismissed as a climate change denier, or a “knuckle-dragging Neanderthal.”
Mr. Guilbeault, the federal Environment Minister, told The Canadian Press on Monday that there will be no other changes to the carbon pricing regime under his watch.
“As long as I’m the Environment Minister, there will be no more exemptions to carbon pricing,” he said.
“It’s certainly not ideal that we did it, and in a perfect world we would not have to do that, but unfortunately we don’t live in a perfect world.”
The only premier to defend the carbon price was B.C.’s David Eby. He said climate change has also cost British Columbians. Still, he criticized the way Ottawa has gone about its most recent changes.
He said the premiers are concerned about affordability and “fair treatment for all Canadians.”
The B.C. Premier wore an “I love heat pumps” t-shirt during his trip to Halifax. His government has been asking Ottawa to collaborate on a heat pump pilot program for months, but has said it only got traction after the federal program was expanded.
Mr. Trudeau announced the new heat pump program for lower-income households in Nova Scotia, PEI and Newfoundland and Labrador almost two weeks ago. It expands an existing program that required people to pay a share of the installation fees. Ottawa has said this was unaffordable for people below the median income line.
The government has said the $750-million program is open to all provinces who want to sign on.
Mr. Trudeau did not hold public events on Monday. His Intergovernmental Affairs Minister, Dominic LeBlanc, told reporters outside Question Period that he doesn’t agree with the premiers’ characterizations. Despite the fact that the expanded heat pump program is currently only available in the east, he said it is a pan-Canadian policy.
“It won’t surprise you that I don’t share that view that we’re playing unfairly in terms of regional representation,” Mr. LeBlanc said.
His government received some political cover from an unlikely ally in the House of Commons Monday, when Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet sided with the Liberals against the Conservatives and the NDP to fend off the Conservative motion to expand the carbon price carveouts.
Mr. Blanchet said reducing pollution pricing “goes against the best interests of the whole planet.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said his party voted with the Conservatives because the Liberal plan is unfair and “pits regions against each other.”
After Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre’s motion was defeated in a 186 to 135 vote, he derided the Prime Minister for striking a “new carbon tax coalition with the separatists.”
Mr. Poilievre has not yet released a climate plan. On Monday, he would not say whether he would maintain Canada’s 2030 emissions reduction targets if he forms government.
He has roundly criticized the carbon price as it applies to consumers and households, but wouldn’t say whether he opposes it being applied to industry.