Trudeau’s Energy/Environment Pre-election Peril


Column / Don Newman

When Parliament returns this fall, not much will have changed for the Liberal government in the House of Commons. But beyond the confines of Parliament Hill, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his ministers are facing an increasingly unfriendly political landscape that is likely to become even more unfriendly.

At stake are Liberals hopes for re-election next October, the future of an environment and energy strategy that on one hand appears to be contradictory but on the other appeared to be working, and the possible return of the kind of federal-provincial disputes not seen since the 1980s.

The landscape began to change just over a year ago when the relatively cozy compact on federal-provincial relations that greeted Justin Trudeau when he became prime minister in 2015 started to crack in the summer of 2017.

The first crack came not from Conservatives on the right, but from New Democrats on the Liberals’ left flank. 

That happened when a new NDP government supported by three Green Party members of the legislature narrowly replaced the Liberals in British Columbia. Claiming the potential damage to the environment as its reason, the new government immediately reversed the province’s support for the twining of the Trans Mountain pipeline across B.C., carrying Alberta Oil Sands Bitumen.

That set off an interprovincial trade war with the neighbouring NDP government in Alberta, and forced the federal government to buy the pipeline and the proposed expansion from its owner, Kinder Morgan in the United States. If Ottawa had not in effect “nationalized” Trans Mountain, Kinder Morgan planned to stop funding the project, in effect killing both it and hopes to get Alberta bitumen to an ocean port.

However, the Trudeau Liberals are determined to get the Trans Mountain expansion built. A pipeline to get Alberta bitumen from the oil sands to tidewater is part of the government’s two-pronged environment-energy strategy. The other is a provincial agreement to impose a tax on carbon beginning at $20 a tonne and rising to $50 by 2022. If provinces did not want to directly tax carbon emissions they can instead adopt a “cap and trade” system to restrict the growth of greenhouse gasses, which Ontario and Quebec already had.

Until the B.C. election there was widespread buy-in from provincial governments to both aspects of the Liberal environment/energy strategy. Only the Saskatchewan Party conservative government in that province refused to sign onto the carbon plan. Instead it has taken the federal government to court to oppose Ottawa’s plan to put a federal tax on carbon emissions in any province that does not act on its own, even though the revenue from the federal tax will go to the province.

With Trudeau’s energy/environment strategy under attack from both an environmentalist government in B.C. on the left and an anti-tax government in Saskatchewan on the right, the anti-carbon taxers received reinforcements, with still more likely to come.

When Doug Ford became the Conservative premier of Ontario in June, one of the first things he did was scrap the province’s cap-and- trade regime. And he is now spending $30 million to launch a court challenge to the federal government similar to Saskatchewan’s.

What’s more, the provincial opposition to a carbon tax is almost certain to increase next May, when Albertans go to the polls. The public opinion polls show that the United Conservative Party under former federal Conservative cabinet minister Jason Kenney is almost certain to replace NDP Premier Rachel Notley, a carbon tax supporter. Kenney will lead a traditional right wing Alberta government, and join the anti-carbon tax emissions-control fight with Ontario and Saskatchewan. 

By the time of the next federal election on October 21, 2019, the battle lines will be clearly drawn around the Trans Mountain pipeline and carbon taxes. The unknown question at the moment is whether there will be more public resistance to a tax designed to improve the environment or a pipeline with the potential to harm it.

If it is the tax, will Conservative leader Andrew Scheer be able to benefit? If it is the pipeline, could that help Jagmeet Singh and the NDP?

Liberals like to say that when they are attacked by the parties to both the right and the left of them they must be doing something right. Often, there is some truth in that. But there is also the possibility of being squeezed in the middle, something that won’t be lost on Liberal strategists.

In 2019 there will certainly be other issues in the federal election. But how the environment-energy one plays out will be one of the keys to determining the winner.  

Don Newman is Senior Counsel at Navigator Limited and Ensight Canada, a lifetime member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery.