Capping oil and gas sector emissions is a promise years in the making for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government, and after judicial setbacks, right-wing backlash to climate policies and internal division in his own party bubbling to the surface, Canadians should expect an update imminently to this crucial climate policy.
“I would be shocked if by the end of this [UN climate conference] we haven't announced a framework for capping the emissions of the oil and gas sector in Canada,” Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault said Friday at COP28 in Dubai. “It's coming.”
In an interview with Canada’s National Observer, Guilbeault said details of the announcement are being finalized but should be ready “in the coming days.”
The pledge to cap Canada’s largest and fastest-growing source of planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions is nothing short of Trudeau’s top trophy to show off at international climate negotiations. He campaigned on it in 2021, and when he went to the UN’s climate summit that year in Glasgow, he promised the world Canada would deliver on it. In September, Trudeau travelled to New York City to speak during the UN’s Climate Ambition Summit, where he committed to a “framework” for capping oil and gas emissions by year’s end.
Since then, pressure has continued to mount. In late November, 19 Liberal MPs signed an open letter urging Trudeau, Guilbeault, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland and Energy and Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson to introduce draft regulations ahead of COP28 “to maintain credibility internationally.”
Destination Zero executive director and member of Canada’s Net Zero Advisory Body Catherine Abreu said part of why Canada’s credibility seems to be on a roller coaster at times is because it has been able to boast climate leadership in international negotiations, even as oil and gas production and emissions increase, since fossil fuels have only recently been openly discussed. In the past two years, that dynamic has flipped and fossil fuels have been dragged into the spotlight for their overwhelming role in driving the climate crisis.
“So Canada and many other producing countries are being asked serious questions about what they plan to do when it comes to accelerating the energy transition and addressing emissions from fossil fuel production,” she said.
That’s what makes the emissions cap a significant trophy for Trudeau in diplomatic spaces. It offers needed credibility that has previously been lacking. But it’s not the only reason pressure to adopt this policy continues to grow.
“The Liberal Party of Canada won the election in 2021 in large part for having the most ambitious and achievable climate plan, and it continues to be the priority topic that the Liberal Party is most trusted on,” the open letter sent to Trudeau reads. “Consistently one of the top three most important issues in Canada, it will be critical in the next election.
In an interview with Canada’s National Observer, Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault said details of the oil and gas emissions cap framework are being finalized but should be ready “in the coming days.”
“Polling has shown that Canadians are overwhelmingly in favour of a cap on emissions from oil and gas, including a significant majority in Alberta, and especially those [who] may vote Liberal from coast to coast to coast,” it adds. “While Alberta Premier Danielle Smith may protest, she does not reflect the view of Albertans, and there is no hope of accommodating her as she has already confirmed that she will not accept an emissions cap of any sort.”
British Columbia MP Patrick Weiler spearheaded the open letter and told Canada’s National Observer that the longer the emissions cap is delayed, the harder it will be to bring into force. Weiler finds himself in the climate wing of the Liberal Party and is fundamentally illustrative of the bind the party finds itself in. The Grits are under fire in some regions of the country for going too far on climate at a time when seats like Weiler’s are at risk of being lost for not going far enough. Weiler’s riding, West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country, has never been won by the NDP, but noted climate activist Avi Lewis is betting he can win, committing last election, when he lost by single digits, to run at least once more.
In other words, the emissions cap has become a stand-in for credibility, both internationally and domestically, for Trudeau’s government. Without credibility, the chances of securing a fourth term in office look especially unlikely.
Climate advocates have been frustrated about delays to the emissions cap since it was announced, and in the absence of information, are deeply concerned it won’t be strong enough to address the crisis at hand. Moreover, they note the “framework” being announced would not be binding, and is sometimes understood among close Parliament Hill watchers as a way to demonstrate progress when cabinet is split on what to do precisely because it lacks force.
Draft regulations, and then final regulations, need to be tabled and passed by the House of Commons before a cap can be put in place.
To underscore the risk — it took two years to develop a non-binding framework. How long will it take to develop draft regulations, go through consultations, develop final regulations and then pass it?
Guilbeault says draft regulations will be published in the first half of 2024, and he hopes sooner than June, but could not commit to a specific timeline.
“What has slowed down a little bit of the development is we've been facing some headwinds, certainly from a judicial perspective,” Guilbeault said. He pointed to the Supreme Court of Canada’s recent opinion, which found the federal government has the power to do federal environmental assessments but ruled the language of the Impact Assessment Act was too broad, and the recent Federal Court ruling that struck down a cabinet order Ottawa used to ban some single-use plastics. The feds are appealing the Federal Court decision.
Those judicial findings “forced us to really make sure we've dotted our i's and crossed our t's because [the emissions cap] will likely be challenged and … we want to try to maximize our chance of this being upheld when it’s legally challenged,” Guilbeault said.