Alberta uses Sovereignty Act for 1st time. What happens now?

Click to play video: 'Alberta Sovereignty Act: How does Danielle Smith plan to get around clean electricity rules?'
Alberta Sovereignty Act: How does Danielle Smith plan to get around clean electricity rules?
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith has invoked the province's Sovereignty Act for the first time in the legislation's history, pushing back at the federal government's proposed clean electricity regulations. Heather Yourex-West explains how Smith intends to try to get around Ottawa's plans, and how the federal government is reacting – Nov 27, 2023

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith says she’s using the province’s Sovereignty Act for the first time to challenge Ottawa’s requirements to have a net-zero electricity grid by 2035.

Smith said she wanted to invoke the act to send a message that her government is serious about pushing back against Ottawa’s plan to green Canada’s electricity grid by 2035, a plan she says could wreak havoc on Alberta’s natural gas-based grid.

“We’re creating an opportunity for the federal government to do the right thing and back down,” Smith told reporters.

“We’re sending the message: ‘Keep working with us on our 2050 target.'”

Smith made the comment prior to a motion being introduced in the provincial legislature under the Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act.

The motion calls for the Alberta government to take several actions, the most notable among them to empower provincial officials and regulators not to co-operate with the federal regulations, currently in draft form but soon expected to be enacted, so long as the province doesn’t break federal law.

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The motion also calls on Alberta to look at creating a Crown electricity corporation in the province’s privately run power marketplace. The stated goal is not to compete but be a means of generating electricity if the future green grid risk baseload power.

Alberta also looks to launch a court challenge against federal clean electricity regulations, which are still a draft at this point and subject to change.

What is the Sovereignty Act?

The legislation says it gives Alberta the “legal framework to push back on federal laws or policies that negatively impact the province,” and it’s to be used when federal legislation or policy is used in a way that’s “unconstitutional.”

The first step of using it is that the Alberta legislature must debate and adopt a motion that calls a piece of federal legislation “unconstitutional” or deems that it harms Albertans.

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Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, says this first step is the easy part.

“That’ll pass. The UCP has a majority government. They may even get some NDP on side to vote in favour of that,” he said prior to the motion being introduced. “The devil is going to be in the details: how do you draft up an action plan to deal with something that hasn’t happened?”


Click to play video: 'Draft of Clean Energy Regulations debate in Alberta'
Draft of Clean Energy Regulations debate in Alberta

The second step of the Sovereignty Act is to take this declaration from the legislature and draw up a plan on how the provincial government will push back on the federal plans, which also has to be adopted by the legislature.

This is where Bratt begins to see Monday’s announcement as more of a political stunt — namely the call to not cooperate with federal regulations in ways that are permissible under the law.

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“So, it’s saying don’t cooperate with them, don’t recognize it, don’t do any of that. But follow the law. Well, what does that mean? Does that mean you’ll pay your income taxes but complain while you’re doing it?” Bratt said.

How will Alberta plan to tackle this?

The Sovereignty Act says the provincial government can’t use it to tell private companies or individuals what to do. However, if Alberta established a Crown electricity utility it could apply the Sovereignty Act measures there.

“I’m not even sure that is going to work, because even a Crown corporation still has to follow the law. It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card,” Bratt said.

Bratt pointed to Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, who said that he is directing the Crown-owned SaskEnergy to stop collecting the federal carbon price on home heating. This is in response to the three-year carbon price pause Ottawa put on home heating oil, a policy that will mostly apply in Atlantic Canada and parts of Ontario.

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Earlier this month, the Saskatchewan Party government introduced legislation to make the government and minister responsible for SaskEnergy solely responsible for decisions around the remittance of the federal carbon levy.

Dustin Duncan, Saskatchewan’s Crown Investments Corporation Minister, said this would protect the board of SaskEnergy and other employees from potential liability for not following the federal law.

Beyond legal questions with the Crown corporation proposal, Bratt sees it as a surprising move ideologically.

“Imagine if Rachel Notley and the NDP had thought about nationalizing the electricity system. Heads would have exploded. She’d have been called a commie and a Marxist and a socialist and all those words,” he said.

“And now Danielle Smith is thinking about doing it. And it’s like, ‘Go on, Dani! This is what we need that will show people!’ So, it’s been a wild day, to say the least, in Alberta.”

Something like the Clean Energy Regulations normally would be challenged in the courts if a province thought Ottawa was overstepping its constitutional grounds, he said.

This was the case in the ultimately unsuccessful challenge against the federal carbon price, which Alberta was a part of.

What is Alberta fighting?

The Sovereignty Act is being used to oppose Ottawa’s Clean Electricity Regulations, which call for all electricity generation to be carbon neutral by 2035.

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Alberta generates much of its electricity through fossil fuels like coal and natural gas.

Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault released draft regulations in early August to establish a net-zero energy grid by 2035.

“The draft regulations that I introduced this summer provide a lot of flexibility for many jurisdictions across the country who still use fossil fuels and more specifically, natural gas, to continue doing so after 2035,” Guilbeault said following Alberta’s announcement.

“It is true that we want to limit as much as possible use of fossil fuels as part of our grid in 2035. But it’s not a fossil fuel-free grid in 2035. It’s a carbon-neutral grid.”

Click to play video: 'Sovereignty act may be used to fight 2035 net-zero electricity plan: Alberta premier'
Sovereignty act may be used to fight 2035 net-zero electricity plan: Alberta premier

Guilbeault said that he believed Ottawa and Alberta were working in good faith on discussions around the regulations and that using the Sovereignty Act never came up at that table.

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As draft regulations, the minister said the federal government is open to making modifications based on consultation sessions.

“So, we are open to making some changes. That’s what the conversation should be about, not whether or not we should be doing this, like Premier Smith is doing,” Guilbeault said.

Instead of a 2035 deadline for a carbon-neutral electricity grid, Smith is pushing for a 2050 deadline. At this point, Ottawa is planning for a carbon-neutral economy in 2050.

— with files from The Canadian Press. 

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