One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

3 minute read

The Trudeau Liberals came to power in 2015 promising Canadians substantial progress on climate action. While they have the promising down to a science, it’s the progress part that continues to trip them up.  

Last week, the Supreme Court declared the government’s major environmental law unconstitutional, the Alberta government launched a campaign against the 2035 net-zero electricity grid target, and two provinces withdrew support for the proposed Atlantic Loop. These are all unexpected obstacles for the federal government’s climate plans. Let’s dive into what this means for Canada’s transition to a clean economy.

Supreme Court Ruling on the Impact Assessment Act

The federal government’s 2018 environmental legislation, known as the Impact Assessment Act (IAA), introduced a ‘one project, one assessment’ approach for impact assessments. Its aim was to reduce redundancy, enhance efficiency, and foster cooperation across different jurisdictions. The Impact Assessment Agency was supposed to provide certainty for projects and predictability for businesses. However, after being challenged by the Alberta Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the law unconstitutional as it was found to grant federal overreach into provincial jurisdiction.

The IAA streamlined the process for assessing the impacts of major projects by allowing federal regulators to gauge the potential environmental and social effects of proposed projects. While the Court recognized the concept of cooperative federalism as part of a shared responsibility for environmental decision-making in Canada, it found this cooperation should not override the separation of powers and preservation of constitutional balance. The Court’s decision highlighted the need for the federal government to act within the existing constitutional framework.

Both Energy and Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson and Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said the government would move quickly to improve the legislation, but did not provide any details.

Strained Relationships

The Court’s ruling was not the only obstacle thrown at the government’s clean energy plans. Alberta Premier Danielle Smith launched a campaign opposing Ottawa’s proposed Clean Electricity Regulations (CERs). The ‘Tell the Feds’ campaign takes aim at the 2035 electrification targets. Alberta is calling for a more gradual phase-out of fossil fuels to avoid what it says will be rapid cost increases for businesses and consumers. 

While Liberals may chalk this up as yet another in a long list of grievances Alberta has with the federal government’s energy policies, it is a sign of how some provinces are starting to view the economic cost of the government’s climate aspirations. Further to the east, Ottawa was forced to modify its ‘Atlantic Loop’ regional electricity grid after New Brunswick and Nova Scotia abandoned the decarbonization plans last week due to cost and reliability concerns.

What does this mean for climate action in Canada?

The obstacle course of managing a climate response across jurisdictions has proven difficult for the Liberal government. They now have an obligation to revise the Impact Assessment Act to conform to the Supreme Court’s ruling. This could be done in a number of ways, but one thing is certain – they’ll need the support of at least one other party to pass any amendments. This is a tall task considering the NDP, Conservatives, and Bloc all voted against the bill in 2018.

The government’s response to the Court’s decision also holds key implications for the Clean Electricity Regulations and the emissions cap since both use the same regulatory mechanism that was deemed unconstitutional by the Court. If the Liberals continue to press ahead with the regulations on their own, the IAA case likely won’t be the last we see challenged by the provinces.

Climate action is needed, but if the Liberals continue to ignore concerns along the way, they risk the larger goal of reducing emissions country-wide.

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