It was much happier times between Alberta and Ottawa earlier this year when the two sides signed a major new bilateral health-care funding agreement.
Of course, it’s much easier to find common ground when the starting point is a joint recognition of what is clear provincial jurisdiction. The Canada Health Act and the federal health minister might be two actual things that exist but, in reality, Ottawa doesn’t have much say over health care. That’s not to say the feds don’t have expectations and preferred outcomes, but the carrot and the stick Ottawa wields is limited to providing or withholding federal dollars.
On the other hand, in an instance where Ottawa would be blatantly trampling on provincial jurisdiction, it’s unsurprising that acrimony would arise. When it comes to federal ambition for clean electricity, the constitutionally responsible approach would be something closer to the health accords: Ottawa identifies a goal and then seeks agreements with the provinces.
Unfortunately, that’s not what the federal government is doing. Perhaps emboldened by the Supreme Court decision that upheld the constitutionality of carbon pricing, the feds are pressing ahead with their clean electricity regulations and the goal of a net-zero power grid by 2035. The existence of carbon pricing, however, undermines the need for Ottawa to intrude here since these emissions are subject to pricing (technically, that’s under Alberta’s TIER regulations, but that levy will increase in alignment with the federal carbon levy).
Under the Constitution Act, the provinces have exclusive jurisdiction over the “development, conservation and management of sites and facilities in the province for the generation and production of electrical energy.” If Ottawa wishes to see provinces exercise that jurisdiction in a manner that helps to achieve a certain target or goal, then agreements to that end can be negotiated.
In this case, that should be separate agreements with each province. When it comes to the path to a net-zero grid, for some provinces it is much simpler and shorter. For others — Alberta included — the path is much longer and much more difficult. Arguably, it’s not realistic at all given the stringency of the proposed regulations. So not only is Ottawa ham-handedly intruding on provincial jurisdiction here, but is doing so in a very unfair and arbitrary manner.
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This may be destined to end up before the courts, although that’s not a certainty given that these regulations don’t officially take effect until Jan. 1, 2035. Mind you, it’s undeniable that the draft regulations and the declared federal intentions will put a real and immediate chill on investment in Alberta in the area of new natural gas capacity. In that sense, this is hardly abstract or hypothetical.
Of course, Alberta has gone out of its way to put its own chill on investment thanks to its ham-handed, unfair and arbitrary moratorium on renewable energy projects. If Alberta wants to demonstrate a willingness to be a partner on clean energy, that’s not an ideal starting point.
Ultimately, there’s a need for both sides to compromise and to show some flexibility to find common ground. But let’s not also forget how we got here in the first place — Ottawa chose this path.
Premier Danielle Smith’s statement last week invites Ottawa to use the forthcoming working group as an opportunity to bring provincial and federal plans and targets into alignment. However, the statement also declares that these draft regulations “will not be implemented in our province — period.”
While that may sound like Alberta is picking a fight, this is not a fight that Alberta started. This doesn’t have to be a fight at all, but a preference for pleasantries shouldn’t give the federal government licence to intrude on clear provincial jurisdiction.
The only way to truly defuse this situation is for Ottawa to recognize that it has overstepped its bounds.
“Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” airs weekdays from 12:30 to 3 p.m. on QR Calgary and 2 to 3 p.m. on 630CHED