Ontario argues federal carbon tax is unconstitutional in new legal filing

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Ontario is arguing the federal government's carbon tax plan is unconstitutional in a new document submitted in Superior Court on Friday, one day after the Progressive Conservative government released a climate change plan of its own.

Rod Phillips, minister of environment, conservation and parks, revealed in an interview that the province was ready to file a 459-page factum. The government is spending some $30 million to oppose the imposition of a federal carbon tax, the details of which were revealed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in late October.

The province's lawyers are arguing that Ottawa's plan to levy a tax of $20 on every tonne of greenhouse gas emissions starting in 2019 — rising by $10 each year to $50 a tonne by 2022 — is an unconstitutional "intervention into inter-provincial rules and rights," Phillips told CBC Radio's Metro Morning.

"It's a significant issue," he continued, adding that on Thursday, New Brunswick became the latest province to join a court-challenge to the federal carbon tax (Saskatchewan was the first).

You can listen to the full Metro Morning interview with Phillips in the player below.

Two years ago, most provinces and territories in Canada signed onto a federal climate change framework that included an agreement to put a price on a carbon. At the time, however, Saskatchewan and Manitoba both declined to join.

In response, Ottawa announced that provinces and territories that do not have climate pricing plans of their own that meet federal standards, like those in Quebec, and B.C., will face the imposition of a federal carbon tax, as well as a new regulatory fuel tax.

That group now includes Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Yukon and Nunavut, and possibly Ontario.

The cap-and-trade system put into place under Ontario's previous Liberal government met federal standards, however the PCs repealed that legislation earlier this year. That move put Queen's Park on a collision course with Ottawa.

The province's new climate change plan, presented by Phillips on Thursday, does not include a carbon tax.

Phillips argued, however, that it does make polluters pay for emissions and also meets emission reductions agreed to in Paris in 2013. He said that he hopes to meet with his federal counterpart, Catherine McKenna, to explore whether it satisfies Ottawa's requirements.

In an interview with CBC's Power & Politics just hours after the plan's release, McKenna was skeptical.

"It's very light on details, so it's hard to know what the plan entails. But the reality is that they still seem to think it should be free to pollute," she said, adding that the PCs plan is "far less ambitious" than that of their predecessors.

Phillips pointed out that Ontario has managed a 22 per cent reduction in emissions since 2005, more than any other single province in the country. As part of the Paris agreement, Canada committed to an overall 30 per cent reduction from 2005 levels by 2030.

Ontario's plan keeps the province on track to achieve its own 30 per cent reduction in that time frame, according to Phillips. That amounts to about 18 fewer megatonnes emitted per year by 2030. The previous Liberal regime had set a goal for a 46 megatonne drop.

"Ontario has backtracked," McKenna said of the revised target.

Phillips, however, said Friday that the plan will keep emissions in check while maintaining the province's economic competitiveness.