While Brad Wall laments, other Tories embrace carbon pricing

Is the debate over pricing carbon emissions slowly nearing an end or has it only just begun? Perhaps it is a bit of both.

While federal Conservatives complain, one of their own proposes a carbon tax

Conservative leadership candidate Michael Chong has proposed a revenue-neutral carbon tax. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Is the debate over pricing carbon emissions slowly nearing an end or has it only just begun?

Perhaps it is a bit of both.

On Monday, Brad Wall's campaign against a national price on carbon reached the dreaded Open Letter stage.

Over the past month, the Saskatchewan premier has condemned Justin Trudeau's declaration of an impending price on carbon as a "betrayal," mused about legal action, delivered a speech to the Regina Chamber of Commerce, released a white paperpassed a censorious motion in the provincial legislature and variously tweeted his complaints.

Next, Wall sat down and wrote a strongly worded letter to the attention of Ralph Goodale, the federal public safety minister and the lone Liberal MP in Saskatchewan.

The federal Conservatives then put the issue to Goodale in the House of Commons on Wednesday.
Premier Brad Wall is still complaining bitterly about the federal carbon pricing plan and sent an open letter to Regina-Wascana Liberal MP Ralph Goodale. ((Trent Peppler/CBC, Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))

"When will the Minister of Public Safety stand in his place and start defending the interests of our province and all Saskatchewanians?" begged Conservative MP Kelly Block.

"Mr. Speaker, I have been doing that with considerable success since 1974," shot back Goodale, who had already penned a lengthy defence of the government's position.

Two hours earlier, in a room one floor below the House, Conservative MP Michael Chong had, as luck would have it, convened a news conference to announce that a hypothetical future Conservative government led by him would introduce a federal carbon tax, with the revenue put toward dramatic reductions in income and corporate taxes.

Chong wasn't going out on a limb.

Who else is ready or willing to price carbon?

Patrick Brown, the Ontario Progressive Conservative leader, has proposed a revenue-neutral carbon price — Joe Oliver, the former federal finance minister, has signed up to run for Brown's side — and three candidates for the Progressive Conservative leadership in Alberta have taken similar positions.

The Progressive Conservative government in Manitoba is committed to establishing a price for carbon. Preston Manning, the reigning elder statesman of Western conservatism, recently co-authored an op-ed that declared, "To be clear, pricing carbon is a good idea."  And Chong's plan was enthusiastically greeted by Mark Cameron, once a senior policy adviser to Stephen Harper.

Some of this might have to do with the inevitability that Trudeau's position implies, or the political cover it provides. But Stéphane Dion, defeated in his bid to run country over the issue, might be forgiven for wondering where these voices were eight years ago.

It is easy to miss amidst his strenuous objection to the federal proposal, but even Brad Wall supports pricing carbon.

Saskatchewan waiting for the right time

Just not the way he thinks the federal government wants to do it. Or at least not right now.

"When the economy strengthens again, when the resource sector is strong, we will move on our long-standing commitment to have a tech fund in this province funded by heavy emitters who will pay into the fund," he told the crowd at that chamber of commerce luncheon.

Wall's government actually passed legislation to do just that in 2011. It just hasn't gotten around to actually enacting the policy.

It's not clear when Wall's right time will arrive — or whether the levy he has in mind would meet the federal standard. The budget his government presented in the spring projected the province's economy would grow in each of the next four years and the federal demand is merely that each province have a price in place at some point in 2018.

Meanwhile, policy analysts and economists have questioned Wall's wider argument against the federal plan and suggested that a provincial price on carbon could be designed to address his concerns.

Throw in the fact that Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec are committed to pricing carbon and this all amounts to a very different scene than existed when Dion pitched his green shift in 2008. And it is tempting to believe the debate slowly is being resolved in favour of pricing.

So how could it all still go sideways?

What about Alberta?

One senior provincial official, speaking on condition of anonymity, points to Alberta.

There will be an election there in 2019 and what if the NDP government and its carbon tax are defeated (perhaps by Jason Kenney, a vehement opponent of pricing carbon, even if he hasn't yet offered an alternative proposal)? Does the emerging consensus thus collapse?

What would Alberta's carbon policy be under Jason Kenney? (CBC)

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley has already made her support for a higher price contingent on a new pipeline to tidewater. So what if neither the TransMountain pipeline to the west nor the Energy East pipeline to the east gets built?

Wall has challenged the very notion that pricing carbon will work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, though studies of the tax in B.C. suggest it has had an impact. To truly settle the debate, a national price will have to seem to accomplish something, but that conclusion might have to wait a decade or so.

At one point in his campaign, Wall noted that Hillary Clinton was not proposing to price carbon and, indeed, her platform makes no mention of such a thing (though the Democratic party's platform does). But leaked e-mails later indicated why Clinton avoided the idea — a price on pollution is popular in theory, but less so when voters are presented with arguments by opponents of pricing.

The political environment in Canada might be more hospitable, but pricing is still a vulnerable policy, as anything that raises costs might be.

Nova Scotia remains reluctant to go along with the federal plan. And even if everyone agrees to some form of pricing, there is still, as observers suggest, likely to be a debate about how high the price should be.

It also simply remains to be seen whether sufficient policies — pricing and otherwise — can be agreed to and implemented to reach Canada's international environmental targets. 

And maybe Donald Trump would tear up the Paris climate treaty anyway.

At his news conference on Wednesday, Chong compared carbon pricing to free trade with the United States, an initiative federal conservatives came around to reluctantly, then embraced and then convinced the country to adopt.

Thirty years later, free trade is both a generally accepted idea and a lingering point of contention.

If Ralph Goodale manages to spend another 30 years representing Saskatchewan in the House of Commons, he might be around to see carbon pricing achieve the same status.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.


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