How to rule out cap-and-trade without quite ruling out cap-and-trade

Lobbed a friendly question yesterday afternoon, Joe Oliver stood in the House and declared as follows.

I am pleased to announce that, although the United States is adopting a carbon tax, which the American administration did not say it intended to do, our government will never do so in Canada. We will never adopt the NDP’s $21 million carbon tax, which would cause job losses and increase prices overall. We will continue to lower taxes and stimulate job creation.

Now, moments earlier, Eve Adams had reported to the House that the Obama administration was steadfastly against a carbon tax, so maybe Mr. Oliver had received urgent news to the contrary or perhaps he misspoke. Nonetheless, here was the Natural Resources Minister declaring that the Harper government would never adopt a carbon tax.

So never mind apparently what that Stephen Harper fellow said in 2009. And set aside, in this case, the importance of harmonizing our environmental policies with the United States.

Except that this isn’t quite a definitive statement.

Peter Kent apparently repeated the pledge—”The prime minister has made it very clear that we will not consider a carbon tax”—to reporters after yesterday’s meeting of the environment committee, but what does that mean? (That story references cap-and-trade, but the only quote from Mr. Kent refers to a carbon tax.) Is the Harper government using the definition of a carbon tax that it recognized in 2008 and 2009 (in which a carbon tax and cap-and-trade were distinctly different policies) or the definition the Harper government has been using over the last year (in which a carbon tax and cap-and-trade are exactly the same policy)?

When I asked Mr. Kent’s office in June about the impact of American policy, I seemed to be told two things: that the possibility of cap-and-trade was a hypothetical for which no clear answer could be provided and that the Harper government would not impose a carbon tax.

When I asked Mr. Oliver’s office in September, there seemed to be the same distinction: the Harper government would not adopt a carbon tax, but it was not in a position to comment on the possibility of cap-and-trade.

So that Mr. Kent and Mr. Oliver are declaring that the Conservatives will never implement a carbon tax is not new. But what about “cap-and-trade?” What about any policy that establishes a price on carbon? Anything short of an explicit vow on those explicit grounds leaves ambiguity.