OTTAWA (Reuters) - Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s already shaky bid to persuade Canadians to fight climate change will get even tougher after the election on Tuesday of conservative Jason Kenney as premier of the energy-rich province of Alberta.
Kenney and his United Conservative Party easily trounced left-leaning incumbent Premier Rachel Notley of the New Democratic Party in the provincial vote, where climate actions were made the scapegoat for Alberta’s economic woes.
The province’s economy has struggled to recover since oil prices plummeted in 2014 and spurred an exodus of major energy firms from Alberta.
Kenney, who opposes much of Trudeau’s green agenda, had pledged to repeal a provincial carbon tax that Notley introduced. Such a move would automatically trigger a federal carbon tax in Alberta that is aimed at provinces that do not have their own plans to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Alberta will become the fifth out of Canada’s 10 provinces to oppose a carbon tax, indicating the scale of the challenge for Trudeau’s Liberals ahead of the October general election. Three provinces are suing the federal government over the levy.
“The carbon tax is all economic pain and no environmental gain. (Albertans) want to scrap the carbon tax cash grab,” Kenney told cheering supporters late on Tuesday.
In Alberta, Canada’s most traditionally conservative province, the Liberals face an uphill battle to hold on to their three seats. Kenney’s antagonism, particularly on climate matters and pipeline construction, is unlikely to help.
Trudeau, who was leading in polls at the start of the year, is trailing his Conservative Party rival Andrew Scheer because of a scandal over his alleged interference in a corporate corruption case.
“Even losing three seats in Alberta is really a big problem,” said Ipsos pollster Darrell Bricker.
Notley has been an occasional Trudeau ally, and she introduced Alberta’s own carbon tax in 2015 as part of a wide-ranging effort to make the province’s oil and gas sector more environment-friendly.
Despite the challenges, Trudeau has no intention of changing his mind.
“There are premiers right across the country right now that have gotten elected ... and have made it very, very clear they do not think doing anything to fight climate change is a priority. And I disagree with them,” he told a town hall on Tuesday.
In Ontario, the most populous of the provinces, Premier Doug Ford killed a provincial cap-and-trade system after his election last year, forcing Trudeau’s government to fully impose its carbon tax on April 1.
Prices at the pump jumped immediately, which could hurt Trudeau’s chances in auto-dependant suburban swing ridings around Toronto. The Liberals need to win as many seats as they can in the vote-rich province.
“Ontario has another strong partner that will fight for Canadian families against the job-killing federal carbon tax!” Ford tweeted late on Tuesday, referring to Kenney’s win.
The provinces of Saskatchewan, Manitoba and New Brunswick, which have conservative governments, have not implemented their own emission plans and are now paying the federal tax.
Federal Conservative leader Scheer has pledged to kill the carbon tax if elected, though he has yet to outline a climate plan of his own.
“I think it’s really unfortunate,” Catherine McKenna, Canada’s environment minister, told Reuters of the push to kill the federal carbon levy. “It seems to be part of a movement by this generation of conservative politicians to not make decisions based on science, evidence and facts.”
McKenna noted that Canada’s carbon tax effort was being closely watched around the world as momentum builds in other nations to tackle climate change.
And support is growing at home as well. An Angus Reid poll in November showed that a majority of Canadians, 54 percent, supported the carbon tax.
This result was bolstered by the Trudeau government’s pledge that most revenues from the tax would be returned to consumers in the form of a rebate worth hundreds of dollars a year for a typical family.
Kenney, meanwhile, told the rally that Albertans took the challenge of climate change seriously, adding without elaborating, “we are world leaders in innovating to reduce emissions.”
Additional reporting by Nia Williams in Calgary, Alberta and David Ljunggren in Ottawa; editing by David Ljunggren