Opinion: Climate change fights heat up

It is not just pipelines Canada has a hard time getting done. Putting money where the country’s mouth is on climate change is turning out to be at least as hard.

This week, two provinces turned to the courts to challenge core elements of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s plan to reconcile Canada’s energy ambitions with its climate-change obligations.

As previously announced, the government of British Columbia is asking that province’s top court to clarify whether it has the constitutional authority to regulate the amount of bitumen oil that transits through its territory. The answer will not be forthcoming for a while and certainly not in time for the May 31 deadline set by Kinder Morgan to fish or cut bait on its expansion.

A favourable court ruling for B.C. could have consequences for the profitability of all future interprovincial pipelines, starting with the Trans Mountain expansion.

In the immediate future, the move by the province’s minority NDP government means that project will likely not go ahead without an injection of public funds.

If he loses the court battle, Premier John Horgan says he will consider the pipeline matter closed. But that might only happen once the province has exhausted all its legal recourses. If the case makes its way to the Supreme Court, this debate could stretch beyond the next B.C. election. In Ontario and Alberta, the Conservative opposition parties support Saskatchewan’s move. If elected to power later this spring and next year, Doug Ford and Jason Kenney have both said they would fight Trudeau’s carbon-pricing policy in court. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is planning to campaign next year on a promise to repeal the Liberal climate-change framework.

For all the drama surrounding the battle to stop the Trans Mountain project, the political forces aligning against Trudeau’s climate-change strategy are no less consequential. They are also just as uncompromising in their stance as the anti-pipeline foes, whose intractable opposition to the Trans Mountain project they so vehemently denounce.

As he set out the terms of his province’s carbon tax challenge on Wednesday, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe argued that provinces are not subsidiaries of the federal government.

The recent Supreme Court beer ruling demonstrated that contention has a constitutional foundation. But the irony that Saskatchewan is invoking the same federalism principle to fight Trudeau’s carbon tax as B.C. is in its challenge to the federally backed pipeline is apparently lost on Moe and his federal and provincial allies.

Trudeau came to power touting a two-pronged approach to energy and climate change. His government would put in place a national framework for carbon pricing and make a start toward meeting Canada’s international obligations to reduce greenhouse gases. But it would also have the back of the fossil fuel industry as it sought to expand its reach to markets.

Two-and-a-half years later, few of the protagonists in the debate have bought into Trudeau’s proposed compromise, they have sidestepped it.

Notwithstanding the prime minister’s carbon-pricing initiatives, climate change activists in B.C. and elsewhere and their like-minded Indigenous allies are not about to give a social license to pipeline projects. Opposition to the Trans Mountain expansion is more deeply rooted in concerns over the increased risk of oil spills at sea than in the project’s contribution to greenhouse-gas emissions.

On the other side of the debate, the Conservative opposition to Trudeau’s carbon-pricing policy is not tied to the obstacles standing in the way of the Trans Mountain expansion. If those obstacles were removed tomorrow, Scheer, Ford, Kenney and Moe would not blink an eye in their battle against a federal carbon tax.

For Trudeau, winning the pipeline battle would not translate into winning the carbon-pricing war. It would only impose on his government an even greater obligation to ensure its carbon-pricing plan is equally implemented. The prime minister has said he will see the Trans Mountain project done, even if that means forcing the hand of B.C.’s government and losing support in B.C. before next year’s federal election.

By all indications, Trudeau will have to show the same determination to ensure his national climate change framework becomes a reality in every province – again, at some potential risk to his party’s electoral fortunes.

Chantal Hébert is a columnist based in Ottawa covering politics.

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