What happens if the United States decides to pursue cap-and-trade?

As previously noted, the Harper government was keen to pursue a continental cap-and-trade system in 2008 and 2009. At the time it seemed that the American administration was equally keen. After President Obama’s plans came apart, the Harper government decided continental cap-and-trade wasn’t possible.

In a January 2011 speech, Peter Kent still spoke of the need to coordinate with the United States and in May 2011, Mr. Kent allowed that cap-and-trade “can always be something to consider in the future.” But by that time, the Conservatives had already said that the cap-and-trade proposal of the Liberals was “unCanadian” and the cap-and-trade proposal of the NDP would “wreak enormous havoc on the Canadian economy.” Earlier this month, Mr. Kent declared that cap-and-trade and a carbon tax were equivalent and now the Conservative party is running attack ads that warn Thomas Mulcair, who has proposed a cap-and-trade system, would impose a carbon tax.

So the Conservatives were previously in favour of cap-and-trade and against a carbon tax, but now they oppose cap-and-trade because, they say, it’s the same thing as a carbon tax.

But what would happen now or in the future were an American government to decide again to pursue cap-and-trade? I asked Mr. Kent’s office about that scenario: In the past, Minister Kent has spoken of the need to harmonize or align environmental policy with the United States. If lawmakers in the United States decided to pursue a cap-and-trade system, would the Harper government cooperate with efforts to create a continental cap-and-trade system or would the Harper government refuse to participate?

Mr. Kent’s spokesman responded as follows.

The question is hypothetical.  Such a decision would be addressed under the Clean Energy Dialogue and would be decided on what is in Canada’s best interests.

So the government cannot rule out implementing a cap-and-trade system in Canada at some point in the future?

It’s a hypothetical question that I am not in a position to give a definitive answer. The Minister and Prime Minister have been quite clear that our government will not impose a carbon tax on Canadians.

To clarify: Minister Kent has said that cap-and-trade is equivalent to a carbon tax, so does that mean the government would not enter into a continental cap-and-trade system?

The government’s position is clear on carbon taxes. We are opposed to them.

I left it there, but it seems to me that the government’s position on cap-and-trade leaves only two options in this case: either a definitive promise that the Harper government will never cooperate with a continental cap-and-trade system or an explanation as to how it could participate in a continental cap-and-trade system without contradicting its criticism of Mr. Mulcair and the most recent Liberal position.

For bonus points, Mr. Kent might be asked how he squares his government’s position with what the CEO of Shell sees ahead and what the British Columbia government is currently doing (not to mention his government’s previous position).