Higgs won't rule out carbon pricing even if Supreme Court rules fed's tax unconstitutional

·4 min read
Premier Blaine Higgs says there's a need for an environmental plan for every government. (Submitted by the Government of New Brunswick - image credit)
Premier Blaine Higgs says there's a need for an environmental plan for every government. (Submitted by the Government of New Brunswick - image credit)

Premier Blaine Higgs won't rule out keeping some form of provincial carbon price in place even if the Supreme Court of Canada strikes down the federal carbon tax this week.

Higgs says the need for an energy transition is clear and he might not abandon his own 4.2-cent-per-litre tax even if Ottawa's system, the basis for his own tax, is ruled unconstitutional.

"I wouldn't prejudge and I won't at this point have a hypothetical answer to that," he told reporters when asked about the ruling scheduled for Thursday.

"I think there's a need, and the public rightfully wants to see, an environmental plan from every government. So it isn't a case of turning to, and going in, a different direction. It's a case of finding the right path forward at the right pace."

The premier also made clear his dismay at a recent vote by federal Conservative party delegates to reject a motion that said climate change is real.

During a national policy convention, 54 per cent of delegates voted against a resolution that committed the party to "strong, coordinated and achievable" climate policies. The resolution also stated, "We recognize that climate change is real."

Higgs called the vote "interesting."

"I guess that's probably all I'd say about it. It's an interesting situation because we're all working toward what we've experienced in relation to the the climate and the changes we've seen directly," he said, pointing to two major floods in 2018 and 2019 as well as extreme rain and ice storms.

"I suppose you can debate and debate about what's having the greatest impact on climate change, but I guess if I think about my time here in New Brunswick, the climate's different than it was when I started."

Natural Resources and Energy Development Minister Mike Holland said he was 'disappointed' with a federal Conservative party delegate vote to reject a motion that said climate change is real.
Natural Resources and Energy Development Minister Mike Holland said he was 'disappointed' with a federal Conservative party delegate vote to reject a motion that said climate change is real.(Radio-Canada)

More than 71 per cent of New Brunswick delegates to the convention voted for the resolution, the highest provincial tally in support of it.

Natural Resources and Energy Development Minister Mike Holland went further than Higgs, saying he was "disappointed" with the federal policy vote.

Higgs said he remains concerned that federal climate policies are making some New Brunswick industries uncompetitive.

But he said his concerns were less about the carbon tax on consumers and more about the federal requirement for output-based pricing on industry and a proposed clean fuel standard to force producers to make cleaner-burning fuels.

'Can't ignore' Irving oil layoffs

He pointed to recent layoffs at the Irving Oil refinery as an example of what happens when a Canadian company is hit with rules that its American competitors don't have to obey.

"There's a big issue there and it can't be understated," he said. "We can't ignore it."

Irving Oil announced in January it was laying off 60 refinery employees, or about seven percent of the workforce. The company attributed the layoffs to a drop in demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic, not to carbon pricing.

In last week's provincial budget the Progressive Conservatives announced their carbon tax on consumers will rise to 4.2 cents per litre next month to match the federal requirement for a higher per-tonne price on fossil fuel emissions.

Higgs also said he would consider rebating some of the revenue to consumers directly, like the federal regime does, rather than offset the increase with a new cut to the gas excise tax.

New Brunswick supported the governments of Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta in their constitutional challenge to Ottawa's power to levy a carbon tax. They argued it was an intrusion on provincial jurisdiction.

In Ontario and Saskatchewan, the provincial appeal courts sided with the federal government. In Alberta the ruling went against Ottawa.

The Supreme Court will rule on Thursday.

"The question of whether there's a legal right, a constitutional right, will be put to bed once and for all, so we'll wait and see what that says," Higgs said.

Meanwhile, Holland faced questions Wednesday on another fossil-fuel front following news that SWN Resources Canada has renewed its shale gas exploration licence in the province for another five years.

The minister said the extension amounts to a "placeholder" and the company has not filed any plans to explore for shale gas.

"This is simply a desire by the company to keep that licence," Holland said.

"It wasn't as though any great industrial plan had come to us. It wasn't as though the market had indicated they had an opportunity they were looking at employing here. It was quite simply a perfunctory extension of the licence."

He pointed out a province-wide moratorium on shale gas government put in place by the previous Liberal government remains in effect, though the Higgs government carved out an exception to that in the Penobsquis and Picadilly areas near Sussex in 2019.