Justin Trudeau’s government already has a pre-election war on its hands with Ontario and a number of other provinces over its recently imposed carbon tax.
Next week’s Alberta election could raise the climate change policy stakes to a new high, just in time for the upcoming federal campaign.
The result of that provincial vote could force the prime minister to choose between salvaging a minimum of credibility for his climate change policy or living up to his oft-repeated assessment that the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline is in the national interest.
Alberta votes on Tuesday. Short of a last-minute surge in NDP support, polls suggest Jason Kenney’s bid to return the province to the conservative fold will be successful.
Over the past month, the United Conservative Party leader has campaigned as aggressively against Trudeau as against outgoing NDP Premier Rachel Notley.
If he becomes Alberta’s premier, Kenney is committed to doubling down on his attacks on the prime minister by backing them with confrontational moves on the climate change front.
Some of those moves amount to little more than red herrings, but they would nevertheless be provocative.
Kenney’s promise that his first act in office will be to proclaim a law that would allow his government to restrict the supply of Alberta’s oil and natural gas to British Columbia belongs in that category.
That measure is possibly unconstitutional. Perhaps more importantly, using the Alberta law to get back at British Columbia for its government’s opposition to the Trans Mountain expansion would do nothing to advance the pipeline’s cause.
As hostile to the project as the NDP government in Victoria may be, it is not responsible for the delays it is currently incurring.
Those result from a verdict against the federal government in a case brought to court by Indigenous opponents of the pipeline.
Ottawa has been working to meet the court-imposed conditions to restart the project for the better part of a year.
It is an open secret that Trudeau has long planned to press relaunch as soon as that process was completed, ideally in time for this summer’s construction season.
His government now owns the pipeline and has, if only by default, become the prime mover behind its expansion.
The federal cabinet is expected to review the file next month. The assumption has been that it would at that time give the project the green light to resume.
As of next Tuesday night, that widespread assumption could be no longer valid.
If, as the polls predict, Kenney does become the next Alberta premier, he will kill the carbon tax introduced by Notley’s New Democrats, remove the ceiling cap on the carbon emissions of the oilsands and halt the phaseout of Alberta coal-fired electricity.
In so doing, a UCP government would effectively be removing the very rationale upon which the prime minister based his decision to give the Trans Mountain expansion the go-ahead in the first place.
That approval was contingent on Alberta’s climate change commitments.
Absent those, Trudeau would have cause to reconsider.
To give the project the green light against the backdrop of the complete withdrawal of Alberta from the federal climate change framework would cost Trudeau’s signature policy its last shreds of credibility.
But to put it on hold would shatter the federal contention that the expansion is in the national interest.
For the prime minister, it could come down to an unpalatable choice as to which of his words on the pipeline-versus-climate change issue he walks back.
Chantal Hebert is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.