Premiers from across the country have agreed to start work on a national energy strategy, but B.C. Premier Christy Clark said emphatically this morning that her province is not willing to sign on to it until they work out the problems surrounding the Northern Gateway project.
Alberta Premier Alison Redford is the strategy's biggest backer. She'll lead the working group developing the comprehensive energy plan, along with Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale and Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger.
Clark made the comment at a meeting of premiers in Halifax. She told reporters she's not interested in discussing a national strategy until Redford and the federal government sit down with her to address her conditions for the Northern Gateway pipeline project.
"And so until we see some progress in the discussions between British Columbia, Alberta and the federal government with respect to the Gateway pipeline through British Columbia, we will not be participating in the discussion of a national energy strategy," Clark said.
"We won't sign on to an energy strategy that suggests we should do that when that's not actually what we're doing today."
Clark left the room where premiers were meeting to speak to reporters while her counterparts were discussing a national energy strategy, but said she would return. Redford led the charge to have that item on the agenda at the meeting.
"This is business and this piece of business is not something we agree on," said Clark.
Premiers downplay pipeline dispute
The premiers avoided criticizing each other in the final press conference, playing up the positive.
Redford said they'd made tremendous progress and that she was excited the energy strategy was moving ahead because there are a number of issues to work out, including aboriginal involvement, climate control policy and infrastructure.
"As provinces we will also have issues that need to be resolved, and I think there's a real sense around the table that while those issues are there, that it's still possible to have the policy conversation," she said.
Selinger said B.C. will still be working with them unofficially on "matters of common interest," even if the province is not officially participating.
Although there's a dispute between B.C. and Alberta, Selinger said, "it's part of the overall story, but there's an east coast, there's a northern coast, and there's domestic supply and there's North America, and all of these things are in play as we move forward."
'That's not politics. That's my job': Clark
The Northern Gateway project is a proposal by Canadian oil and gas company Enbridge to build two pipelines stretching 1,177 kilometres between the Alberta oilsands and Kitimat on B.C.'s west coast. The Northern Gateway would have the capacity to transport 525,000 barrels of oil per day.
Clark said Wednesday that her province deserves a "fair share" of the revenues from the $5.5-billion crude oil pipeline, and if a deal can't be reached, her province would block the project. She says she delivered that message last week in a phone call with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Redford and Wall.
Redford has called Clark's approach disappointing and divisive and made it clear her province is not interested in sharing profits from the pipeline with its neighbour.
Clark said the project isn't popular in her province, so she's bringing British Columbia's concerns to a national discussion.
"And as the premier of British Columbia, that is my job. That's not politics. That's my job. To stand up for British Columbia, to fight for things that British Columbians want for our province," she said.
Some of the premiers mused about a pipeline running from the west to the east so the Atlantic could import less oil from foreign sources.
Late Friday, the National Energy Board announced a small step in that direction when it approved Enbridge's application to reverse the flow of its Line 9A pipeline between Sarnia, Ont., and Westover, Ont.
Labour Minister Lisa Raitt, who is also a former minister of natural resources, said in a statement that she welcomed the decision and expects it will bring more Western Canadian crude to eastern markets.
New complaints about federal health transfers
Earlier Friday, the premiers said a new federal formula for health-care transfers to the provinces amounts to a $36-billion cut.
A report, led by Selinger, says the Canada Health Transfer will drop by that amount over a 10-year period, starting in 2014-15, compared with what the provinces now get from Ottawa to help them deliver health services.
The new health funding formula, announced abruptly by federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty in December, means the federal share of health care costs will be 20 per cent by 2024, compared with the 50 per cent share it was originally, the premiers report says.
Flaherty announced that current six per cent annual increases will stay in place through 2017, but by 2018 the increases will drop and be tied to the rate of nominal GDP, which is the measure of economic growth including inflation. The premiers were angry that they were not consulted about the new funding formula and they're still eager to sit down with the federal government.
"We remain very committed to the notion of co-operative federalism where there ought to be discussions of these matters before decisions are taken because it does have a big impact on Canadians," Selinger said. "Those resources will mean less money available for nurses and doctors and health care where people live in communities all across the country."
Quebec Premier Jean Charest, who is widely expected to call an election in the next few days, took a shot at Harper and Flaherty, who have been single-minded in their determination to cut costs.
"We operate emergency rooms. We do not say to people come back next year when economic growth will be better, we'll fix your arm. Maybe in another world that happens. In our world, that's the real world in which we operate," Charest said.
The $36-billion figure arrived at by the premiers assumes that the health transfer would have continued to rise by six per cent annually.
The analysis released today also determined that between 2014-15 and 2018-19, the provinces and territories are set to receive $23 billion less from the federal government for all fiscal transfer arrangements than under current agreements. The health transfer accounts for about $7 billion of that total while a drop in equalization payments accounts for the rest. Equalization payments are intended to address fiscal disparities among the provinces.
Transfers at 'all-time high': Flaherty
A statement from Flaherty's office on Friday said that "federal health transfers are now growing faster than provincial spending on health care." The finance minister maintains the federal Conservatives have increased, not cut, major transfers to provinces and territories since taking office, up to an "all-time high" in the current fiscal year.
"All governments in Canada must recognize long-term deficit spending creates a heavy debt burden that limits a government’s ability to support economic growth and protect social programs," the minister's statement said. "As ongoing events in Europe have shown, when governments spend too freely, it eventually leads to major problems that require drastic and painful steps."
An invitation was extended to the federal government by the premiers on Thursday, requesting that Harper meet with the group in late November.
They want to talk to him about the economy and how the global economy is affecting Canadians. Harper has not met with the premiers, collectively known as the Council of the Federation, since 2009. A spokeswoman for Harper said he speaks regularly to individual premiers.
On Thursday, the group agreed to a number of recommendations to improve health-care delivery and spending that include buying drugs in bulk.