National Column: PC’s shifting winds buffet energy goals

by Chantal Hebert

For the first time since Justin Trudeau’s government set out to put a national floor price on carbon emissions, there is a real possibility the government could have to implement its climate change policy without the co-operation of Ontario.

On Thursday, Caroline Mulroney joined Ontario Tory leadership rivals Doug Ford and Christine Elliott in a bidding war for the title of chief carbon tax slayers.

To listen to the main contenders for Patrick Brown’s succession one might be led to believe Canada’s largest province actually has a carbon tax. It does not and nor has its Liberal government proposed to introduce one.

Until this week, revenues from a proposed carbon tax were meant to provide the fiscal foundation of the Tory election platform. Having taken an axe to that, Job 1 for the winner of the succession battle on the morning after next month’s leadership vote will presumably be to rebuild a credible plan to finance the party’s election promises.

What Ontario does have is a cap-and-trade system designed to allow it to meet the federal carbon pricing targets set by Trudeau’s government.

In opposition, the Tories have consistently described that approach as a cash grab. Having rejected the alternative, Brown’s successor would, should the Tories win a government in June, have to choose between walking back the party’s talk on cap-and-trade, or daring Trudeau to impose a federal carbon tax on Canada’s largest province.

Until Brown’s exit last month, federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer had to keep some of his anti-carbon tax powder dry. His party’s most influential provincial wings in Alberta and Ontario were on opposite sides of the issue.

The reversal of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives frees the Conservatives to campaign in 2019 against the Trudeau’s policy. Should the province – under a PC government – turn its back on the prime minister’s climate change strategy between now and then, the resulting imposition of a federal carbon tax on Ontarians would make that prospect just about irresistible.

It seems the Conservative insiders – and there are more than a few – who believe the lack of a credible climate change policy stifles the federal party’s electoral growth are condemned to continue to preach in the desert for a while longer.

Unexpected complications for the federal climate change policy on the carbon tax front in Ontario were compounded this week by a pipeline war in the making in B.C.

It is possible to chart a somewhat predictable course to a legal resolution of the conflict between Alberta and B.C. that would see expansion of Kinder-Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline go ahead as planned.

But Trudeau could win a legal war on behalf of the Trans Mountain project on the constitutional battlefield and yet lose the street to the anti-pipeline forces.

When he approved Kinder Morgan’s pipeline expansion plan, Trudeau wanted to show that the adoption of a national carbon pricing policy could go some way to facilitate the energy industry’s export aspirations.

But in so doing he has provided an environmental movement that is itching to engage in a defining battle over pipelines with a cause that has potentially strong legs in public opinion.

Those who watched the so-called Quebec Maple spring of student unrest know only too well the limits of reasoned discourse about the rule of law in the face of the momentum of a populist protest movement.

In 2012, what started as a ritual battle over a hike in tuition fees turned into a social uprising that ground part of Quebec’s education system to a halt and eventually forced the holding of a provincial election.

Already there are those who look for analogies between the protests that could attend the building of the Trans Mountain expansion and the 1990 Oka crisis. The federal government of the day had to send in the army to end a summer-long Indigenous blockade of one of Montreal’s main bridges.

As extreme as it might seem, there are serious observers who are not ruling out the possibility that Trudeau could end up having to do likewise to ensure that the Trans Mountain project gets done.

By approving the expansion of a pipeline to tidewater and simultaneously setting a floor price on carbon, Trudeau’s Liberals believed they had come as close as possible to crafting a fine balance between Canada’s energy ambitions and its climate change obligations.

But that did not factor in the federation’s ever-shifting provincial winds.

At the end of this week, that fine balance looks like anything but.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer.
Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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