Prentice failed to sell cap-and-trade scheme to Alberta

Harper's former environment minister attempted to get Alberta to agree to a now-rejected national cap-and-trade system.

Documents detail pitch for national climate change regulations, province refused to sign on

Former Environment Minister Jim Prentice, shown here in a file photo, tried but failed to convince the province of Alberta to agree to a national cap-and-trade regulatory scheme to control greenhouse gas emissions. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

A former Conservative cabinet minister attempted to convince Alberta politicians to accept a more stringent regulatory approach to curbing climate change in 2009, newly released documents show.

Then-federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice met with Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach and provincial Environment Minister Rob Renner in Calgary on Sept. 11, 2009 to discuss the idea of getting the province involved in a national system.

"I think you would agree with me that encouraging businesses and individuals to change behaviour requires appropriate price signals," a briefing note, which outlines "points to register" with the Alberta government, reads.

"We believe that a carefully designed cap-and-trade system will send the appropriate price signals to encourage changes and ultimately help reduce emissions."

Cap-and-trade is designed to force businesses that produce greenhouse gas-causing emissions to find efficiencies.

The system would put limits on the amount companies are able to pollute. Those that are over the limit would then have to buy credits from those who are under.

The documents were prepared by bureaucrats with Environment Canada, the federal department responsible for climate change policy, and obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

The federal Conservatives once supported a national cap-and-trade system but have since taken a different tack.

"Canada's climate change plan is to reduce emissions through a sector-by-sector regulatory approach, not through cap-and-trade," Environment Canada spokesman Mark Johnson said in an email.

This sector-by-sector approach includes working towards bringing in "tighter standards" for cars and light trucks manufactured after 2017 and regulating coal-fired electricity generation, he said.

Johnson did not directly respond to questions about the 2009 meeting and declined a request for an interview.

Prentice evidently failed to convince the Alberta government to participate, as it has yet to agree to a national cap-and-trade system.

Stelmach has long been an opponent of adopting such a scheme nationally.

"A national policy that achieves desired emissions reductions needs to be flexible enough to account for the different economies, emission profiles and reduction challenges of each province," Cameron Traynor, a spokesman for the premier, said in an email.

The Alberta government was also opposed to cap-and-trade when the meeting took place in 2009, said Traynor.

The federal government would need to get Alberta on side before it could implement a regulatory approach to reducing emissions on a national scale, said Sierra Club executive director and environmentalist John Bennett.

Prentice "would need the support of Alberta to go back to cabinet and say 'We can have a cap-and-trade system in Canada,"' he said.

"Without them, no way would the rest of the cabinet do anything that would affect the oil sands."

Alberta industry members are the largest emitters, he said, meaning they would need to buy credits from those who emit less.

That would likely result in "significant" money being transferred from Alberta to other parts of the country, a 2007 report by CIBC World Markets showed.

The Alberta government would react negatively to any regulatory structure that transfers wealth from one region to another, said Traynor.

Bureaucrats were optimistic Prentice would be able to convince Alberta to sign on to the federal government's regulatory agenda in 2009, the documents show.

Alberta previously opposed a cap-and-trade system "for potentially limiting growth in the oil and gas sector and resulting in the transfer of wealth to other provinces," the briefing notes said.

"However they have recently indicated greater support for a cap."

In November 2010, a little over a year after the meeting took place, Prentice announced that he would be resigning from government to take a job with CIBC.

He declined any further comment on the matter Friday through a spokesman.

Prentice was meeting with the Alberta politicians to "identify synergies" between the approaches of the two levels of government to combating climate change, the notes said.

They were also going to discuss Canada's preparations for an international conference on climate change negotiations.

Representatives from countries around the world gathered in Copenhagen in December 2009 to try to reach an international agreement that would cut down on greenhouse gas emissions.

Prentice faced criticism from environmentalists at the conference who believed the Conservatives failed to play a meaningful role in developing global reduction targets.

Environmentalists gave Canada the dubious "Fossil of the Day" distinction on more than one occasion during the conference.

Ontario and Quebec criticized Alberta during the talks for being unwilling to shoulder its share of the burden in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The federal government previously said it is going to wait for the United States to adopt a national regulatory regime that would combat climate change and then harmonize Canada's system with what lawmakers south of the border decide.

That doesn't appear to be happening any time soon, though.

U.S. President Barack Obama has put his environmental agenda on hold for the moment, claiming he doesn't have enough support in Congress for it to pass. He says he would prefer to implement a cap-and-trade system.

The Canadian government will only align with the United States "where appropriate," said Environment Canada's Johnson.

Prentice expressed frustration with Alberta's attitude toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions in October 2009 -- about a month after the meeting with Stelmach took place.

The minister told U.S. Ambassador David Jacobson he was prepared to unilaterally impose regulations on the province, said a cable to Washington released by Wikileaks in December 2010.

Alberta has had a cap-and-trade system in place for a few years now but environmentalists complain it is not reducing emissions enough to make a substantial difference in curbing climate change.

It's in place provincially, however, so industry members transfer wealth only within the province. Companies can also choose to pay into a fund that provides money to help develop more environmentally friendly technology that they can later use.

The system is also based on the intensity of emissions, meaning that as businesses expand, their emissions can continue to grow.

The province has invested more than $100 million in clean energy technology, said Traynor.