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Danielle Smith invokes sovereignty act on green electricity, concedes it's for symbolic effect

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Premier Danielle Smith invoked Alberta’s sovereignty act on Monday to implement new measures in her fight against Ottawa’s looming clean electricity rules while conceding she didn't need the act to put the changes in place.

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 house under the Alberta Sovereignty Within A United Canada Act.

The act specifies members of the house must debate and vote on motions before Smith’s government can take action.

Monday's motion calls for Smith’s government to empower provincial officials and regulators to not co-operate with federal rules tied to the 2035 green grid — but not to the point that they break the law.

The motion makes it clear that this non-compliance order does not apply to private companies or people.

It also calls for Alberta to explore creating a Crown corporation to play a role in the province's privatized power system in order to provide electricity should the green grid risk leaving citizens without an adequate baseload of power.

“We want to be the generator of last resort,” said Smith.

While the motion does not call for Alberta officials to break the law, Smith said they will work out some kind of provision to shield them from prosecution should it come to that.

In Ottawa, federal Energy Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said he is bewildered by Alberta's move toward using the sovereignty act against proposed clean electricity regulations. He said he thought the two governments had been moving toward a consensus.

"This is a triumph of politics over good public policy," Wilkinson told The Canadian Press in an interview.

"This is exactly what Canadians should be encouraging their politicians to avoid."

Canada and Alberta created a climate and energy working group to try and deal with some of the barriers between them over various policies. Wilkinson said the group has met five times and four meetings were specific to clean electricity regulations.

Another meeting was scheduled for December.

At none of the meetings did Alberta indicate it planned to turn to its sovereignty act, Wilkinson said.

"In the context of all of those conversations, not once has Premier Smith, nor her folks, ever mentioned that they were considering bringing forward the sovereignty act. It is a bit bewildering to be honest for me, in the context of actually so much good progress being made."

Smith said the sovereignty act declaration isn’t designed to put a stop to that committee work.

The act, the new premier's signature legislation, was passed last year to take a stand against federal policies deemed to be interfering in provincial jurisdiction, such as energy projects.

It has drawn criticism and questions of constitutionality, because it grants the province power to reject federal laws or regulations deemed harmful to the province. It has not been tested in court.

Smith had been signalling for days the motion was coming.

She told her provincewide radio call-in show Saturday that she’s “had it” with federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault, saying he “doesn’t care about the Constitution” and noting Ottawa recently lost two court cases dealing with disputes over federal-provincial jurisdiction.

Smith maintains there’s reason to believe power generators could achieve a later target of 2050. Sooner, she has said, could put the grid at risk of failure during peak periods.

Guilbeault released draft regulations in early August to establish a net-zero energy grid by 2035. He has said Canada does not want to be left behind as the United States and other G7 countries move toward clean electricity.

He has also said any claim that building a clean electricity grid in Alberta would lead to blackouts is misinformation designed to inflame rather than inform.

Alberta is instead calling for a net-zero grid by 2050. Canada is aiming to have the entire economy carbon neutral by 2050.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government is already facing a more direct legal challenge from Saskatchewan.

Last month, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said his province would stop collecting the carbon tax on natural gas starting in the new year unless Ottawa offers an exemption.

The move came as Trudeau announced the consumer carbon price would be exempt for three years on home heating oil to address affordability needs, a boon to those in Atlantic provinces, where it's a main source for home heating.

Moe and Smith asked Trudeau to extend that exemption to cover all other forms of heating, including natural gas.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 27, 2023.

— With files from Mia Rabson in Ottawa  

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