The immortal words of Obi-Wan Kenobe came to mind this week when Margaret Miller staged her walkout from the federal-provincial Environment Ministers’ meeting in Montreal. For the first time in ages one could detect a “disturbance in The Force” – a.k.a Liberal Land. There were not exactly cries of terror, like those that roiled the Force in Star Wars. But after acquiescing to earlier slights over issues like the Supreme Court vacancy and health transfers Miller’s protest promenade over carbon pricing represented a change in tactics for the McNeil Liberals.

At first glance, the McNeil government seems to be on solid ground in risking a disturbance in the Liberal universe by balking at the Prime Minister’s announcement of a $10-per-tonne price on carbon in 2018, rising to $50 in 2022. The feds’ goal is to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas levels by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. Nova Scotia was within a few hundred tonnes of that goal in 2014 (the last year for which we have statistics) and may actually have reached it by now. As the province has pointed out repeatedly, that accomplishment has come at a price – replacement of Nova Scotia Power’s dirty coal and fuel oil with more costly clean energy sources.

And as detailed in an earlier post (March 2016), the Liberal-held Atlantic provinces are neither the source of, nor solution for, Canada’s GHG dilemma. Like Nova Scotia, New Brunswick is already close to or at the 30% reduction target and PEI’s emissions are too small to worry about. Only Newfoundland, which produced 1.45% of the country’s GHGs in 2014, faces a challenge getting down to the 2030 target.

However, for a whole bunch of reasons, Nova Scotia’s middling success in bringing down emissions does not justify the walkout and abdication of responsibility for at least considering carbon pricing. For one thing, despite our recent reductions, we were still the fifth highest carbon polluter per capita among provinces in 2014. For another, 30% below 2005 levels is far from the end of the story. Much larger reductions will be needed to clear the next hurdle – an 80% cut in emissions by 2050. Why not get started now?

LNG factor

Another factor is the prospect of liquefied natural gas. If both of the already approved LNG plants in the Strait areas go ahead, the province’s annual emissions would jump 25%. With LNG in the picture, putting a price on carbon would be needed just so Nova Scotia can stay on course to meet the 2030 federal targets and those set out in the Environmental Goals and Sustainable Prosperity Act.

And then there is the argument advanced by both the Ecology Action Centre and the NDP that because a carbon levy is coming anyway, it’s better to have it designed by the provincial government following consultations with Nova Scotians. There are several carbon pricing issues to be hashed out – how to deal with energy poverty for one, and whether to go with a carbon tax or cap and trade, an approach which is being talked up by some woodlot owners and wind companies. Leaving those decisions to the feds is a cop-out by the provincial government.

Finally, there is the broader field of federal-provincial relations. The Nova Scotia Liberals owe a good deal of their success – both in the 2013 election and in subsequent poll standings – to Trudeaumania II.   Given the Trudeau Liberals’ recent cavalier approach to Atlantic Canada it was inevitable that a lovers’ quarrel would eventually erupt. It’s too bad the inciting incident is a feckless stand against carbon pricing and not a more substantive issue, such as health transfers or regional economic development. Indeed, Nova Scotia’s chances of getting a deal on health transfers that recognizes demographics might be enhanced if we supported the federal carbon initiative rather than siding with Brad Wall and the remnants of the heads-in-the-sand Harper crowd.

The price of gas

There are many good reasons why the provincial government should be getting on with devising a made in Nova Scotia carbon pricing plan. However, such rationale has little weight with the Liberals for one simple reason – fear of raising gasoline prices. McNeil himself has made that concern very clear. Interviewed by ATV’s Steve Murphy last Tuesday from a farmer’s field at Greenwich in the Annapolis Valley, McNeil returned several times to the impact that a carbon levy would have on the price paid at the pump by rural residents. According to the Premier, to get anywhere in rural Nova Scotia you need to drive, and when the price of gas goes up you have no choice but to raid one part of your household budget to pay your higher gas bill.

This boilerplate response ignores a couple of things. First off, the carbon-pricing plan can be designed so that low income households receive rebates to offset the carbon levy. Secondly, the more affluent could choose to offset the tax by driving a little less or trading in the 4X4 gas guzzler for something more efficient.

But those considerations are probably not going to move the McNeil Liberals either. Gas prices have been their signature issue, dating back to the days when they were the rurally-based third party in the legislature, desperate for attention. In those days they would occasionally grab a headline with their crusade against the gasoline tax and gas price regulation (which they disingenuously linked with higher gas prices). In power, the Liberals have failed to follow through, leaving in place the tax and regulatory regime they railed against in opposition. Any move by the McNeil Liberals now to increase the tax on gasoline would carry for them the additional downside of broken promises on gas prices.

So at least until after the next provincial election we should expect the Liberals to change the subject when carbon pricing comes up. To protect their rural base they will ignore calls from the left to craft a progressive carbon pricing plan. And to limit the size of the disturbance in the Liberal universe they will reject demands from the Baillie Conservatives to mount a Wall-like stand against a federally-imposed regime. Fancy footwork may be required.