Canada’s smallest province is known for its wind turbines and lofty climate goals. Prince Edward Island has vowed to hit net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040, 10 years earlier than the federally mandated date, and is a notable producer of wind energy.

At the same time, the island’s premier, Dennis King, increasingly rallies against federal climate policy. Don Desserud, a P.E.I. political analyst, says that could be partly due to King’s new position as the leader of a majority government.

“The takeaway is that the PC [Progressive Conservative] government here has confidence now. They were far more cautious when in the minority and now they’ve won this big majority, they're far more willing to flex whatever muscle they can find,” said Desserud, referencing April’s election, which saw the Green Party drop from eight seats to two after the island made history in 2019 for becoming the first province in Canada where the Green Party achieved official Opposition status.

P.E.I. has joined a unified campaign with its Atlantic counterparts against the carbon tax — which is a federally imposed charge on gasoline, diesel and home heating fuel. The group launched a campaign called Fight the Federal Gas Hike, urging voters to visit its website and send a letter to their MP. The campaign also targets the clean fuel regulations, which require companies to gradually reduce the carbon content of their fuels.

A wind farm on Prince Edward Island. Photo by Green Energy Futures / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Typically, Desserud said the provincial government of P.E.I. maintains an even-keeled relationship with the federal government. Now, there is a “possibility that is shifting,” perhaps due to King’s PCs anticipating the next federal government moving from Liberal to Conservative, he said.

“You want to make sure that you're establishing what your positions are so it's obvious and hope that if [Pierre Poilievre] wins, he's going to realize that,” said Desserud.

“And that becomes the basis for the next round of whatever federal election negotiations are taking place.”

King may also be open to aligning the P.E.I. Progressive Conservatives with the CPC. When King first came into power following 12 years of Liberal reign, he was lauded for being a different kind of conservative: one who prioritizes science-based climate policy and distanced himself from leaders like Doug Ford, Ontario’s Progressive Conservative premier, who has been criticized for cancelling 750 clean energy contracts expected to cost the province $231 million.

Recent pushback around the carbon tax and the clean fuel regulations from P.E.I. Premier Dennis King has marked a new era for the province. Don Desserud, a P.E.I. political analyst, breaks down the shift.

King laid out his view on climate policy and politics in an 2019 interview with Maclean’s. “The first test for me is: What does this do for Prince Edward Island? If people are resisting the [federal] low-carbon plan, well, that’s not something that islanders are resisting, so why would I jump in at the front of that for the sake of doing it?” said King, who did not respond to media requests from Canada’s National Observer for this story.

Council of Atlantic Premiers

The four most eastern provinces have an official alliance through the Council of Atlantic Premiers, established in 2000, which promotes their interests “on national issues by seeking to establish common views and positions and working to ensure that Atlantic Canadians and their interests are well represented in national debates.”

Although loyalty among the premiers isn’t surprising to Desserud, he doesn’t remember a time when there has been a public unified front as strong as the current one against the federal policy.

Also in the council is New Brunswick, which is home to Canada’s largest oil refinery, owned by Irving Oil: its premier, Blaine Higgs, is a former Irving Oil executive. Newfoundland and Labrador has hinged its economic future on offshore oil and gas and has a plan to double offshore oil production by the end of the decade. Meanwhile, 32 per cent of residential heating in Nova Scotia comes from oil and 37 per cent of power generated in the province comes from coal.

P.E.I. may seem like an outlier: It has no refineries and no plans to explore for oil and gas. However, Desserud said the island has important similarities with its neighbours, especially around the carbon tax and how arguments about affordability resonate with rural voters, where there is less public transportation. He notes P.E.I., along with N.L., is heavily dependent on trucking to get products on island — especially food. Meanwhile, Islanders experience some of the highest food insecurity in Canada.

“The federal Clean Fuel Regulations unfairly affect Atlantic Canadians because of a variety of factors, including our limited fuel sources, a lack of major transit systems, our system of trucking in required goods, and residents with less financial flexibility to bear additional costs or make different choices,” King said in a press release in June.

“We need to take immediate action to postpone the effects of these rising costs to give us time to find a balance between moving to net-zero emissions while also ensuring the people of Atlantic Canada can continue to put food on the table.”

Meanwhile, the federal government stresses that rebate cheques will help offset the costs and that people in small and rural communities will get a 10 per cent top-up. The feds say eight out of 10 households will receive more money back from rebate cheques, paid quarterly, than what they’ll pay on the tax.

However, that hasn’t convinced many people living in rural areas, and conservative politicians across the country are leveraging fears around affordability to drum up support. Poilievre recently put on a series of “Bring it Home” rallies, which have repeatedly called on Ottawa to axe the carbon tax. Some of the events had to be cancelled due to wildfires.

In mid-August, Poilievre was in P.E.I. for a rally attended by hundreds. While the provincial government is PC, all four federal ridings are Liberal, and the majority of ridings are also red in Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

While there is no up-to-date polling on support for the federal Liberals in P.E.I., a new poll found about three-quarters of voters are satisfied with King. The poll was conducted in the first half of August, following July’s implementation of the carbon tax and the premier's opposition to it.

“It's nothing like getting a big majority to show your true colours. We see that with Higgs in New Brunswick. When you're a minority, you're trying to make sure that you're playing nicely with everyone and you want to make sure you're not making enemies,” Desserud said.

“When you're a majority ... you can start saying, 'Well, yeah, this is what we really think.'"