The oil patch may have lost some of its political champions, but here remains Brad Wall.
Stalwart, resolute – the Saskatchewan Premier has donned the mantle of industry defender-in-chief on pipelines and environmental policy, rejecting the notion that making demonstrable progress on the latter could help the former.
The concept of seeking common ground among the provinces has been tried for all of 3 1/2 months now, he says, and look – there are no new pipelines. It's time to go back to the old ways of demanding people across the country just see sense. It's bound to work this time.
At the federal and provincial leaders' table, Mr. Wall is a small-c conservative island in a sea of big-L Liberals and upper-case-N New Democrats. He's an odds-on favourite to hammer home that contrast early and often at this week's first ministers meeting in Vancouver.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed Canada to taking action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris treaty signed late last year, and putting a price on carbon has been widely accepted as a key part of any action plan to be discussed. Mr. Wall says no.
On Tuesday, Quebec sought a court injunction to force TransCanada Corp.'s Energy East oil pipeline to comply with provincial environmental rules. Mr. Wall says that shows why his province should not impose a carbon tax.
Here's the problem: For almost a decade, the oil industry sought to expand its access to markets under the Harper Doctrine – that Canada is a minor contributor to global carbon emissions so it should not act alone on reducing them; that oil is good and just; and opposing pipelines is bad for the economy and unpatriotic. They are, alas, no-brainers.
Nationally, and also in Alberta, voters in 2015 rejected that as unhelpful for getting anything done. It deepened divisions in Canada and internationally, and the energy industry was thwarted in its aims. Then crude prices collapsed. Now, even if a new pipeline to a port suddenly appeared, oil companies would still be in rough financial straits with crude in the $30s (U.S.) a barrel.
The stakes for Mr. Wall are high, as his Saskatchewan Party heads to an April 4 election with a lead in the polls but a growing economy problem due to the oil-industry downturn and weak potash sector. This week, the party acknowledged that its budgetary deficit for the current fiscal year had increased by $165-million to $427-million.
Deficit spending is normally considered to be conservative kryptonite, but even Mr. Wall says economic conditions have worsened to the point where his government has no choice but to go into the red to maintain public services.
So, facing an upcoming vote with a sputtering economy, what takes precedence: joining the club on carbon pricing or demanding action from others on pipelines? For the Premier, it's one or the other. In this case, the other.
He has said in no uncertain terms that he rejects the federal government's plan for a minimum price on carbon emissions, even if the delivery of said price is flexible. The economy remains too fragile to even consider proceeding with such. Instead, take some time to study and assess.
The federal government, meanwhile, has said it wants a solid to-do list on carbon initiatives in six months, with one of them being carbon pricing – something that several provinces, including fellow resource producers Alberta and British Columbia, have already embraced.
In B.C.'s case, the carbon tax has been revenue-neutral and actually helped to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Imagine.
That's not to say Mr. Wall is only playing to the base. He has a good idea when it comes to dealing with an environmental and economic problem – that is putting laid-off oil workers on the job of cleaning up abandoned well sites, even if it uses federal infrastructure spending in a New Deal kind of way.
Just as oil patch woes have pulled Alberta's NDP Leader, Rachel Notley, to the right as she struggles to keep her economy upright, they have forced Mr. Wall to the left a bit with deficits and stimulus spending ideas.
He won't want to advertise that too much. Instead, there are pipeline proposals to be defended.