Justin Trudeau won't rule out imposing carbon price plan on provinces

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the government will impose a "strong" price on carbon — and won't rule out a cap to ensure provinces meet a national standard. In an interview with CBC News, Trudeau said putting a price on carbon is an “essential element” of the government’s climate change plan.

Conservatives accuse government of 'tax grab' as premiers insist on choosing their own way to cut emissions

'We're going to make sure there is a strong price on carbon right across the country, and we're hoping that the provinces are going to be able to do that in a way for themselves,' Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Rosemary Barton, host of CBC News Network's Power & Politics, on Wednesday. (CBC)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the government will impose a "strong" price on carbon — and won't rule out a cap to ensure provinces meet a national standard.

In an interview with CBC News, Trudeau said putting a price on carbon is an "essential element" of the Liberals' climate change plan.

But the federal government's enthusiasm for carbon taxes isn't shared by some of the provincial and territorial premiers now gathered in Whitehorse for the three-day annual summer meeting of the Council of the Federation. 

While a deal on a national strategy to keep the commitments Canada made at the climate change conference in Paris last winter isn't due until a First Ministers' meeting this fall, premiers are trying to circle their wagons this week as they argue against a one-size-fits-all approach.

"Provinces are open to doing what it is they need to do," Trudeau told Power & Politics host Rosemary Barton on Wednesday. 

"We're going to be looking at making sure that the way they do that is going to be sufficient to both protect our environment and reduce our emissions and get that reassurance not just from Canadians but from our trading partners that Canada is serious about the environment."

"We're going to make sure there is a strong price on carbon right across the country and we're hoping that the provinces are going to be able to do that in a way for themselves," he told Barton.

Tax grab?

Ed Fast, Conservative environment and climate change critic, said Trudeau's remarks fly in the face of earlier promises to work co-operatively with the provinces.

"It does appear that he's prepared to force the provinces and territories to accept a carbon tax grab that will simply raise more general revenues for the prime minister's personal priorities rather than the priorities of Canadians," Fast told CBC News. 

Instead of dictating how each jurisdiction cuts greenhouse gas emissions, the government should allow full flexibility in how each one meets its own targets, Fast said, accusing Trudeau of "another broken promise."

"I expect there will be significant pushback from the provinces on any unilateral efforts the prime minister may undertake to impose a carbon tax grab on them," he said.

Provincial pushback

British Columbia and Alberta already have in place the kind of carbon tax systems favoured by the federal government. 

"It's a new day, you know. 2016. Alberta's leading the way," Premier Rachel Notley told reporters during a break in their meeting Wednesday.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, right, speaks with Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski during a meeting of the premiers and National Aboriginal Organization leaders. Provinces and territories aren't all in line about how carbon pricing should be handled. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Notley said her province will use its new climate change plan as a major selling point to help convince other premiers to back the pipelines needed to carry the province's oil to tidewater.

"Not only is it an effective mechanism to make progress on reducing emissions, but it can actually turn into quite an effective economic stimulus mechanism if done correctly, where the unique circumstances of each jurisdiction are allowed to be considered," she told reporters during a break in the premiers' meeting.

In the past, discussions about interprovincial pipelines have been closely linked to concerns about greenhouse gas emissions from oilsands projects, she said, adding that her government's climate change plan unveiled in November should lay to rest some of those concerns.

But premiers from the three Northern territories and Atlantic Canada are pushing back against the federal government's enthusiasm for carbon taxes, arguing this tool isn't right for everyone.

Northerners buy most of their goods and transport them from southern jurisdictions like B.C. or Quebec, which already have carbon pricing in place.

PM speaks on pipelines and the need for a carbon tax

7 years ago
Duration 3:47
Justin Trudeau in interview with CBC's Rosemary Barton

"We need to find an approach that meets needs of each jurisdiction," Yukon Premier and current Council of the Federation chair Darrell Pasloski said Tuesday. "We want to meet our goals, but in a way that doesn't put unnecessary burdens on families and that makes business less competitive."

In Atlantic Canada, electricity costs are already high. A province like Nova Scotia is looking to use the combination of higher hydro rates and programs for retrofitting older buildings to cut energy consumption, rather than piling on another tax.

"We left the March [First Ministers'] meetings being open to carbon pricing mechanisms — plural — and that's where things stand as of today," said P.E.I. Premier Wade MacLauchlan. "I don't think there's any question of anyone being forced at this stage."

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard said in a scrum that he hasn't had any indication that the carbon market approach Quebec and Ontario have implemented won't meet the federal objective.

"This has never been mentioned in our conversations, privately or publicly," he said. "My main concern here is that any initiative the federal government would take does not contradict what we're doing with Ontario and the other jurisdictions right now."

"As far as putting a price on carbon, we've been there for years now," he said, both with Quebec's cap-and-trade regime and a previous provincial levy on fossil fuels.

Erosion of trust

Trudeau said one of his "fundamental jobs" as prime minister is to get resources to market, but he will only do that in a way that balances building the economy with protecting the environment.

His challenge is to rebuild the erosion of trust around pipelines that developed during the Conservative government's decade in office.

"What we had faced was 10 years of Canadians who had lost confidence in the government's ability to look after their best interests," the prime minister said. "There was a complete lack of trust around the processes, around the regulators and around our capacity to do this right." 

Trudeau said the government is rebuilding that trust with a pipeline approval process that consults with stakeholders and Indigenous communities, and relies on science and plans for disaster response.

"This is the kind of balance people expect, both environment and the economy — not one or the other," he said.

In Whitehorse, Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde had a similar message following the premiers' talks about creating better partnerships for resource development.

"To governments — federal, provincial, municipal — and to industry, the message is simple: before you build anything, build a respectful relationship," he said.

With files from Janyce McGregor in Whitehorse