Carbon tax clear but Manitoba's environment strategy murky

On the first day of climate-change school, Manitoba's premier stood in front of the class and essentially said his dog ate his homework.​

Premier urges patience, promising 'the strategies are in place' for an emissions-reduction plan ... next year

The province plans to raise overall taxation by $118 million this year. Premier Brian Pallister says Manitobans should look at what the province has planned for taxation over the next four years. (Trevor Lyons/CBC)

On the first day of climate-change school, Manitoba's premier stood in front of the class and essentially said his dog ate his homework.​

For months, Brian Pallister has been touting the benefits of a "made-in-Manitoba solution" to the thorny problem posed by a carbon tax the Trudeau government has tried to impose across the country.

The feds wanted every province to charge $50 per tonne of greenhouse-gas emissions. Saskatchewan outright refused and Manitoba cannily convinced their overlords in Ottawa to get away with charging $25 per tonne — for now.

Carbon-tax critics on the right weren't happy, claiming the provincial tax would do little to curb emissions and a lot to hamper economic activity. Environmentalists on the left were a little less critical but just as skeptical.

So on Monday, when Pallister's Progressive Conservative government unveiled its third provincial budget, anyone with an interest in the carbon tax — from big, industrial emitters to companies that operate fleets of vehicles to ordinary consumers who fill their cars and heat their homes with fossil fuels — were eager to learn precisely what this "made-in-Manitoba solution" would entail.

They're still waiting, because the plan unveiled by the Tories is just as ephemeral as a cloud of methane — and smells about as iffy, at least to the fiscal hawks who demand taxation to be connected to some clear form of benefit.

"We've dubbed it carbon confusion," said Loren Remillard, president of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, which can usually be counted upon to offer nominal support to conservative governments.

No emissions plan, yet

According to the PCs, the carbon tax is going to raise $143 million this year by charging about five cents a litre on gas and just under seven cents on diesel. Most of this money — $102 million — will be poured into a new conservation trust that's supposed to protect wetlands, grasslands, forests and other natural areas.​

The non-profit Winnipeg Foundation is supposed to manage the money in this trust, but the Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation — a provincial Crown — will dole out the cash, which would be supplemented by private donations.

But when it comes to reducing emissions, there is no indication yet how the province plans to help trucks spew out less carbon, help the city's fleet of transit buses run on hydro power or how heavy industry will be affected.

"Those strategies are all in place. They're in the plan," Pallister told reporters Monday, chafing at the notion his climate-change plan is lacking in detail.

The premier said the province has to talk to industry players before an emission plan comes out next year. It's supposed to look something like a cap-and-trade system. 

"We're not going with a proscription. We're going with a consultation," Pallister said.

In the mean time, anyone who heats their home with natural gas or fills a tank after Sept. 1 is going to pay more. Big industrial emitters, such the Koch Fertilizer plant in Brandon, are off the hook until next year, while the City of Winnipeg's Brady Road Landfill is expected to be permanently exempt.

Winnipeg's Brady Road Landfill is one of Manitoba's largest greenhouse-gas emitters. It won't be subject to a carbon tax until next year. (CBC)

That probably suits Koch Industries just fine. That's the privately held Kansas company that owns Koch Fertilizer and is involved in lobbying the U.S. government on climate change. 

In the mean time, the fiscal hawks here at home are concerned Manitoba plans to raise revenue this year through a carbon tax that's still a work in progress. 

"There would seem to be a lack of transparency as to what exactly that revenue is going to support," said Remillard, who added he was confused by claims the province will return all of the money it collects from this tax to Manitobans in some form.

In fact, the province plans to raise all forms of taxation this year by a total of $118 million. ​The premier said not to worry, as the province has four more years to reduce taxes.

Carbon and the PST

The implication is carbon taxes will somehow help this government reduce provincial sales taxes by one percentage point in 2020.

"This is the proposition that the government is putting to Manitobans right now: give us a whole bunch of your money right now in a carbon tax. Don't worry, we're going to take good care of it. And over the next few years you'll probably, maybe, sort of kind of get it back," said Todd MacKay of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, another organization more likely to support a Tory government than throw shade at it.

"Does that sound like a deal that any Manitoban would buy into? That's absolute nonsense."​

The fiscal hawks can agree on one thing about this budget: Reducing the core provincial deficit by $321 million is a fiscally responsible move.

Manitoba's rising debt, now expected to reach $25 billion by the end of the coming fiscal year, is worrisome when you consider how much tax revenue must be spent on interest charges instead of services or capital projects.

But if it were not for $350 million worth of increased transfers from Ottawa, the province would not be able to afford this move.

Of course, public-sector unions, anti-poverty activists and municipalities would rather the province shared some of that cash instead of using it to slash the deficit.

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman, who's facing re-election this year, did not try to mask his disappointment at seeing his requests from the province — money for roads and transit — utterly snubbed.

On one hand, this provincial government is raising money to combat climate change through a carbon tax. On the other hand, it's continuing a freeze on funding for Winnipeg Transit, a service with the potential to get more Winnipeggers out of their cars.

​But don't worry. The premier says all will be revealed soon. 


Bartley Kives

Senior reporter, CBC Manitoba

Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba.