Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made ambitious commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Paris last December — and now he will lean heavily on Canada’s western provinces to ensure he meets them.
That’s the unsettling conclusion of a report by the Canada West Foundation (CWF), appropriately titled “Look Out,” which urges Western provinces to “bury the hatchet” after years of bickering over pipelines and form a common front to protect their resource-based economies from Ottawa’s coming power grab.
The report by the Calgary-based think-tank, released Monday, also urges Western provinces to develop a common carbon price and design climate change policies appropriate for their economies, such as building a Western electricity grid that uses hydro produced in British Columbia and Manitoba to help Alberta and Saskatchewan get off coal and natural gas.
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Indeed, B.C. has floated the idea of getting behind export bitumen pipelines important to Alberta if Alberta buys hydro from its controversial Site C dam, provided Ottawa comes up with some $1 billion in federal aid.
“No matter how we slice it, there is no escaping the conclusion that the bulk of emission reductions will have to come from the West,” says the report, written by Trevor McLeod and Shafak Sajid and inspired by Dylan Jones, the CWF CEO who will take over next month as federal deputy minister of Western Economic Diversification.
The report argues that Trudeau, despite claiming to want to develop a national plan that lets provinces chart their own path, has secured himself a “hammer” to get western provinces to toe the line.
It came to light on Jan. 27, when natural resources minister Jim Carr and environment and climate change minister Catherine McKenna announced an interim approval process in which federal decisions on pipelines and the Petronas-led Pacific North West LNG project will take into account upstream oil and gas emissions.
“The federal government can now refuse to permit a pipeline or LNG facility if it determines that B.C., Alberta or Saskatchewan has not done enough to reduce upstream GHG emissions,” the report says. “The western skeptic may well worry that the federal government has created a backdoor into provincial jurisdiction over the environmental management of projects — jurisdiction that has been guarded jealously by provincial governments for years.”
The first opportunities for Ottawa to crack the whip are imminent — decisions are due this year on whether to approve the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion (a recommendation from the National Energy Board is expected this week), and whether to issue a permit to Pacific North West LNG.
From Ottawa’s perspective, the West may seem easy to push around: Provincial economies dependent on resources like oil and gas production are obvious targets because of their outsized emissions; unlike consumers in Central Canada, which are also collectively big emitters, western voters are not essential to keeping Trudeau in power.
No matter how hard they try, western provinces are still not doing enough to make Trudeau whole: Alberta will still fall short despite the already onerous climate leadership plan announced by its NDP government last November; B.C. could see emissions rise considerably if its liquefied natural gas industry takes off, which is a priority of its Liberal government; Saskatchewan remains a heavy emitter per capita despite its big spending on technology like carbon capture and storage and its right-leaning government’s refusal so far to price carbon.
But there are questionable assumptions in the federal climate change strategy.
They include: that western provinces will agree to be sacrificial lambs and trade their economic well being so Ottawa can meet international expectations; that there are more carbon reductions to be had from Alberta, in particular; that consumers support such expensive re-engineering of the West’s energy system; that Trudeau can further delay or deny permits for energy infrastructure and alienate Christy Clark’s Liberal government, which is facing a provincial election next year; or promote the failure of Alberta’s like-minded NDP and its climate change plan by not delivering pipeline approvals; or instigate further opposition from Saskatchewan’s Brad Wall, the most likely to capitalize on western alienation and give Trudeau political opposition.
More broadly, the assumption is that while Canada starves the West, regardless of its climate, geography and geology to protect the environment, other countries will do the same.
The CWS’s promotion of a western Canadian power grid is worth considering, but seems like another flavour-of-the-day solution, like carbon capture or ethanol in years past: it would be expensive, it could quickly fall out of favour because it is also controversial and it would sideline abundant and cheap natural gas, the clean burning fuel adopted by jurisdictions like China to meet their climate change commitments, even if not fashionable with the anti-fossil fuel movement in North America.
From the West’s perspective, the solution to Ottawa’s climate change plan is simple: Trudeau must show leadership by promoting and delivering energy project approvals. Absent that, he will face a hostile West with no incentive to further step up. That’s the West’s hammer, and it’s a big one.