First ministers meeting yields no concrete action on Alberta oil price crisis
MONTREAL — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau managed to keep the peace at what began as a tension-filled first ministers meeting Friday but had few concrete achievements to show for the daylong gathering.
Trudeau managed to mollify the premiers by letting them talk about whatever they wanted.
“Everything was discussed,” said Blaine Higgs, New Brunswick’s Conservative premier and the chair of the meeting from the premiers’ side. “I was encouraged by the kind of no-holds-barred discussion. That’s what we wanted and that’s what we got.”
Higgs, who had never attended a first ministers meeting before, said many of the others “said this was one of the most productive meetings they’ve been in for a long time.”
After spending the biggest chunk of time discussing the oil-price crisis that is devastating Alberta’s energy industry, everyone agreed in the communique with Alberta Premier Rachel Notley’s call for federal investments in short-, medium- and long-term help to get her province’s oil and gas to ports for shipment overseas.
Alberta has been suffering from a glut of oil that has been trapped inland, away from buyers, because there hasn’t been enough transportation capacity to get it out. Customers have only been willing to take it at a steep discount to world prices.
The communique says all agreed the federal government should invest in short-term support for energy businesses hammered by the price differential for Alberta’s oil. The federal government should also invest in medium-term efforts to get energy products to market — which Notley took as supporting her plan to buy tanker cars to move oil by rail — as well as long-term efforts to build the infrastructure, presumably pipelines, needed to get oil and gas to tidewater.
“I am pleased to say that the vast majority, if not all, supported what I had to say,” Notley said. “I am pleased that we were able to spend more time on the agenda talking about something that I think everyone understands is fundamentally important to the economic well-being of every Canadian.”
The communique acknowledged that while all first ministers agree on reducing carbon emissions, they disagree on how to go about it. Four conservative premiers — Ford, Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe, Higgs and Pallister — are going to court to challenge the federal plan to impose a price on carbon in their provinces starting in the new year.
The one sour note was sounded by Ontario’s Progressive Conservative premier, Doug Ford, who accused Trudeau of moving the goalposts on Canada’s climate-change plans, requiring Ontario to cut its greenhouse-gas emissions more than Ford had expected.
But other premiers, including fellow Conservative Brian Pallister from Manitoba, disputed Ford’s interpretation of what the prime minister said behind closed doors in Montreal and Trudeau himself dismissed the charge.
Ford at least did not follow through on a threat to walk out of the meeting, which he had criticized for being too narrowly focused on Trudeau’s priority — reducing interprovincial trade barriers — and not enough on the priorities of provinces and territories.
Trudeau and all the premiers, including Ford, signed onto a final communique that was long on general statements about working collaboratively to create jobs, grow the economy, protect the environment, reduce red tape and knock down barriers to trade between provinces.
Under the Paris agreement, the Trudeau government has agreed to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. Ford said his plan will achieve emission reductions of 30 per cent in Ontario — without a carbon tax — but that the prime minister told premiers some provinces will have to do better than that.
“All of sudden, we have a little surprise in the room. The goalposts got changed,” he said.
Moe backed Ford’s version of events but Pallister said there was “nothing new” in what Trudeau said.
Among the few concrete results to emerge from the meeting, Moe said Trudeau committed to amending Bill C-69, legislation to beef up environmental assessments for energy projects. The bill has been heavily criticized for creating regulatory hurdles and uncertainty that will scare off investors in things like pipelines.
Trudeau would not specify what changes he’s willing to make but said there need to be “clearer and faster timelines so businesses can have certainty” and elimination of overlapping federal and provincial assessments. He noted that the bill is currently before the Senate and said he looks forward to any amendments the upper house may make.
On interprovincial trade barriers, the first ministers agreed to what the communique called “bold steps” — harmonizing standards in trucking, including tire size and size and weight restrictions, and eliminating duplication in federal and provincial food safety regimes.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, left, joins premiers Wade Maclauchlan (P.E.I.), Stephen Mcneil (Nova Scotia), Blaine Higgs (New Brunswick), Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, premiers Francois Legault (Quebec) and John Horgan (B.C.) at a meeting of first ministers in Montreal on Friday.