Justin Trudeau Is Taking Punches From All Sides on Energy Plans in Canada

Canada's prime minister is facing provincial pushback on both carbon pricing and a major pipeline proposal.
March 1, 2016, 8:50pm
Photo by Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

As Canada's oil sector hemorrhages and climate change looms, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is trying to build consensus around the country's energy future — but this week he's facing provincial pushback on both carbon pricing and a major pipeline proposal.

The two new fronts on either side of the energy debate illustrate the dilemma Trudeau faces in balancing his fight for the environment with Canada's economic issues. And it's set to come to a head at a conference designed to bring all of Canada's governments together.

On Tuesday morning, Quebec announced it has joined an injunction against TransCanada's Energy East pipeline, an oil pipeline proposal that, if built, would snake through Quebec — though the province says the legal action shouldn't be viewed as opposition to the pipeline.

Also this week, Trudeau is meeting with Canada's premiers in Vancouver to discuss, among other things, a nation-wide carbon pricing plan. The meeting on Thursday is a follow-up to Canada's commitment in Paris last December to cut emissions by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, and will focus on how Canada can deliver on that promise.

A senior federal official reportedly told CBC Trudeau needs consensus on carbon pricing at the meeting in order to move forward on the issue, but on Monday, Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall made his opposition known, loud and clear.

"The timing for this is simply not now," Wall said. "And if there is a national carbon tax that is part of these agreements or declaration … to be signed in Vancouver this week, I will not be signing them."

"I can tell you that with the energy sector reeling in Canada, with the overall Canadian government struggling, it's my view, it's the Saskatchewan government's view, that the very last thing we need right now is another new tax," Wall, who has a provincial election coming up in April, said.

Related: Canada Admits There's No Chance It'll Reach Its Climate Change Targets — Not Even Close

Also on Ottawa's energy agenda is the approval of a pipeline to get Alberta's oil to international markets, and right now Energy East is arguably the favorite to be built. But on Tuesday, Quebec announced it has joined a coalition of environmental organizations in asking for an injunction against the pipeline's proponent TransCanada after the company neglected to submit the project for provincial review.

The Quebec government joined the court action because it wants Energy East to follow its provincial environmental laws, but Environment Minister David Heurtel said the province's legal action doesn't automatically mean they are against the pipeline.

"I want to point out that this should not be interpreted as us being for or against the project. Rather, as in other provinces, it is an attempt to have our laws and regulations respected," he said.

At a press conference in Vancouver, Trudeau downplayed any suggestion of a regional conflict, saying all Canadians want job growth and environmental protection. "That's something that Albertans and Quebecers and everyone across the country is united in wanting," he said.

"When we look at the diversity and range of voices, yes, it's a little more challenging to come to figure out that right place in the middle," he said, referring to the meeting planned for Thursday.

The injunction follows statements from Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, who stirred up controversy in January when he professed opposition to the project. In a January 25 op-ed, he doubled-down on his comments, writing: "In a context where the Earth's nations are talking about even more restrictive measures to limit GHG emissions, we cannot justify the construction of a pipeline, which also delivers more risks than real profits."

'When we look at the diversity and range of voices, yes, it's a little more challenging to come to figure out that right place in the middle.'

In January, a British Columbia court ruled that the BC government "breached the honor of the Crown by failing to consult" First Nations on Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline after the province joined its environmental assessment process with Ottawa's process instead of having two separate assessments. The court ruled BC must make its own independent provincial assessment based on its laws.

On Wednesday, Trudeau plans to meet with three Indigenous groups — the Assembly of First Nations, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Metis National Council — in Vancouver to discuss Canada's energy plans going forward, but two groups, the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples and the Native Women's Association of Canada, wrote a letter to the premiers to express their "great disappointment" in being left out of the meeting.

"Building off the discussions with Indigenous leaders, the First Ministers' Meeting will focus on developing a pan-Canadian framework to grow our economy while also reducing our emissions. The clean growth framework will be science-based and will build on actions the provinces and territories have already taken, so that Canada can meet — or exceed — its climate commitments," the Prime Minister's Office said in a statement.

"Climate change is an issue of great concern for all Canadians and the Government of Canada is committed to working together with our partners to address it," the statement said.

Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @hilarybeaumont