Federal-provincial climate policy talks 'like making sausage in public'
Environment Minister Catherine McKenna answers a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Monday, Sept. 19, 2016. (Adrian Wyld / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Bruce Cheadle, The Canadian Press
Published Monday, October 3, 2016 2:49AM EDT
Last Updated Monday, October 3, 2016 1:50PM EDT
MONTREAL -- Divisions over a federal plan to impose a national price on carbon dioxide emissions were out in the open this morning as Canada's environment ministers gathered to negotiate climate policy.
Canada's northern territories and Saskatchewan remain adamantly and publicly opposed to any carbon tax as part of the pan-Canadian plan being developed with the Liberal government in Ottawa.
Their opposition came into sharp focus as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, kicking off a House of Commons debate in Ottawa on carbon pricing, announced plans to impose a "floor price" of $10 a tonne in 2018, escalating to $50 by 2022.
"There is no hiding from climate change. It is real, and it is everywhere," said Trudeau, who made it clear the price would be imposed on any province that chooses to ignore it.
"We cannot undo the last 10 years of inaction. What we can do is make a real and honest effort -- today and every day -- to protect the health of our environment, and with it, the health of all Canadians."
The announcement took environment ministers by surprise.
"The air was sucked out of the room," said Yukon's Currie Dixon, calling the announcement an odd way to build collaborative policy. Alberta's Shannon Phillips said her province wouldn't agree to an escalating price without a new pipeline.
"We must break that land lock," she said.
Quebec's David Heurtel, the chairman of the meeting, and Ontario's Glen Murray welcomed the new federal policy, saying it fully recognizes their provincial jurisdiction.
Prior to Trudeau's bombshell, federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna entered the day-long meeting in Montreal sounding bullish and pointing to new public opinion research that suggests majority support for a national carbon price.
"Look, this is our moment," McKenna said as she arrived at the meeting room in downtown Montreal hotel.
"Canadians across the country -- you saw a poll today -- are looking for us to get to work, put a price on pollution (which is) what we don't want, so we're moving forward."
But consensus among the various Canadian jurisdictions appears elusive.
"It's like all things federal: We're making sausages in public," Ontario's Glen Murray said as he entered the ministerial meeting.
"It's a pretty ugly process, but it's moving well."
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall has consistently maintained that his province cannot currently afford a carbon tax, a point reiterated today by his environment minister Scott Moe.
Yukon's Dixon said the three northern territories all object to the plan as well.
"I think all jurisdictions recognize that the North is unique and different," said Dixon.
"Carbon pricing in the sense of a carbon tax would not be effective at reducing emissions in the north. It would simply make the cost of living increase, and that's not acceptable to us."
A new public opinion survey suggests there's a reservoir of good will for federal leadership, including majority backing for a minimum national price on CO2 emissions.
In the telephone poll by Nanos Research, 77 per cent of respondents supported or somewhat supported creating a national plan in order to achieve the carbon cuts Canada agreed to under the Paris accord.
And among the 1,000 survey respondents, 59 per cent supported or somewhat supported pricing emissions, with 62 per cent saying they'd support a minimum carbon price that applies across the country.
The poll, conducted Sept. 24-27, is considered accurate within plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
A date has yet to be nailed down for when Trudeau will meet with the premiers to finalize a pan-Canadian plan this fall.
Saskatchewan's Scott Moe says it would be "very problematic and challenging" for his province to adopt a carbon tax given its heavy reliance on price-sensitive commodity exports.
But the push-back on a nationally imposed floor price extends even to provinces that are already moving ahead with cap-and-trade markets that place a price on emissions.
Provincial ministers say a federal-provincial working group of officials that spent the summer looking at carbon pricing failed to reach a consensus on how to equate direct carbon taxes, such as British Columbia's, to cap-and-trade carbon markets like the one Quebec is developing with Ontario.
Quebec's Heurtel told The Canadian Press that every province has to pull its own weight -- and develop its own policies.
That was what the premiers agreed to last March in Vancouver when they signed a common declaration with the prime minister to pursue "market mechanisms" for pricing emissions, said Heurtel.
"We have very serious issues with a national price or any national standard that would adversely affect existing systems like the Quebec-Ontario cap-and-trade system," said Heurtel.