Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault is facing virtually unprecedented opposition from almost every corner of the country as he works to implement a suite of clean energy policies.
His fiercest opponent is Danielle Smith, premier of the country’s top fossil fuel-producing province, who is openly instructing her ministers to go to war against federal energy policies aimed at curbing emissions.
In particular, she wants to weaken or outright shut down a proposed cap on oil and gas sector emissions and clean electricity rules and is mustering the help needed to make the federal government back down.
The first bullet point in Alberta Energy Minister Brian Jean’s marching orders is to defend “Alberta’s energy interests against federal overreach and [develop] strategic alliances with other provinces to deal with energy-related issues.”
Following a three-day conference of Canadian premiers earlier this week, Smith said: "The problem with the federal approach is it's all stick and no carrot.”
On a phone call from Belgium, where he is representing Canada at a climate summit, Guilbeault told Canada’s National Observer he “respectfully disagrees” with Smith. Guilbeault pointed to roughly $200 billion worth of investments in clean technologies, electrification, transit and more his government has passed since 2015, including approximately $80 billion in Budget 2023.
“I don’t know how [many] carrots she wants before she starts counting them,” he said.
A working group involving Alberta and the federal government was announced last week to study the technical feasibility of capping oil and gas sector emissions and ratcheting them down by 2030. Environmental advocates are concerned it could delay the regulations coming into force.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned on the emissions cap, and breathing life into it remains a priority for Guilbeault, according to the minister and his mandate letter. At the same time, Smith has repeatedly called the emissions cap’s goal of curbing oil and gas sector emissions 42 per cent by 2030 unrealistic, arguing it is “essentially a production cap.”
Steven Guilbeault confirms oil and gas sector emissions cap draft rules by end of year as conflict with premiers over clean energy policies reaches new levels.
Aly Hyder Ali, oil and gas program manager with advocacy organization Environmental Defence, says draft regulations for the emissions cap were promised by spring or summer of this year, making any delay worrying.
“There is a concern that [the working group] could be used to delay and weaken the regulation … before it gets to draft form,” he said. “We've seen and heard Alberta's position on the emissions cap.
“We don't have the time to delay and casually put something out when day after day, we're hearing and experiencing more of these [climate] impacts,” he said, pointing to recent research linking nearly 40 per cent of North America’s wildfires between 1986 and 2021 to emissions from the fossil fuel and cement industries.
Guilbeault insists the working group will not delay the emissions cap.
“Our intentions are unwavering,” he said. “We will be putting out an oil and gas cap, and we will be doing it this year.” Whether it's draft legislation or draft regulation, “Canadians and Canadian industry will have a fairly good idea of what we're trying to do this year,” he said, even if the cap itself doesn’t go into effect until later.
But Guilbeault added that because the Constitution gives provincial governments jurisdiction over natural resources, the federal government is being careful to design the emissions cap regulations in a way that “is clearly aimed at emissions and not production.” Failing to do so could make it vulnerable to a court challenge from the provinces. In a 2021 ruling, the Supreme Court of Canada found Ottawa’s price on pollution was constitutional — a decision that solidified the federal government's jurisdiction over tackling emissions.
That case was brought to the Supreme Court through a series of legal challenges led by Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario.
The proposed emissions cap, which Guilbeault said was needed to reach 2030 and 2050 emission reduction targets, “will likely get challenged.”
“We need to make sure we have all our ducks in a row to ensure we're on solid legal ground because it will get challenged,” he said.
At the premiers conference this week in Winnipeg, Smith wasn’t the only leader to put Ottawa’s environmental and clean energy policies in its crosshairs.
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said ratepayers in his province could be on the hook for $8 billion worth of stranded assets if his province has to meet federal clean electricity regulations that require a clean power grid by 2035. New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs, a former Irving Oil executive, took aim at clean fuel regulations, accusing the federal government of increasing the costs people pay at the pump, even though it was a provincial regulation that allowed a refinery like Irving Oil to pass costs directly onto consumers before incurring any costs itself.
In Nova Scotia, Premier Tim Houston has his hands out looking for more federal investment in the Atlantic Loop to help reach clean electricity goals, while Ontario Premier Doug Ford has called Guilbeault “a real piece of work” for criticizing the province’s climate plans. The two have also gotten into dustups over Ford’s plan to pave through the Greenbelt.
“I must confess that I'm a bit disappointed by the position taken by the premiers that we should do less to fight climate change in a time where we're seeing floodings, record forest fires and heat waves,” Guilbeault said. “I'm forced to ask myself … what will it take for them to get on board with the fight against climate change?
“I'm not saying they're all climate deniers,” he said. “But most of the time when we listen to some of them talk about these things it's to say there's too much being done to fight climate change, and I profoundly disagree with that.”
University of Victoria associate professor James Rowe says it shouldn’t come as a surprise that provinces with major fossil fuel interests — whether they are producers of oil and gas, home to major refineries or have companies like Enbridge with a virtual monopoly on the grid — are teaming up to fight climate policy.
There are “very powerful corporate interests in each of these jurisdictions where you're seeing stiff resistance,” he said.
Rowe added there’s a “petro nationalism that still predominates Canada,” where oil and gas companies have been able to make their interests appear to many to be the same as provincial interests. Those fossil fuel companies understand their self-interest involves extracting and selling fossil fuels and is thereby at risk due to clean energy policies, he said.
“Totally dispiriting and planet-destroying, but utterly rational that they'd be fighting tooth and nail to defend their ability to maximize profit,” he said.
“The fact (provinces) would be fighting, and [organizing] together to resist what's coming down from Ottawa … those dynamics make perfect sense to me,” he said. “It's unfortunate that significant resistance to climate action remains part of the conservative brand both in Canada and also down south, given all the cultural exchange that happens between conservative movements in North America.
“So it's dispiriting but utterly predictable.”
— With files from The Canadian Press