John Chilibeck – The Daily Gleaner – Feb 11

The Higgs government took close to $4 million from gas taxes that was supposed to be dedicated to a climate change fund and instead used the money for other purposes, a revelation exposed by a former Tory cabinet minister.

Andrea Anderson-Mason, who is now a backbench Tory MLA, asked pointed questions Wednesday of officials in the Department of Environment and Local Government as part of her duties as a member of the standing committee of public accounts at the legislature.

She zeroed in on a climate change fund that had been created by the previous Liberal government and came into effect April 1, 2018.

Under questioning, Cade Libby, the deputy minister of environment and climate change, told the MLA that the special purpose fund was created as part of the government’s response to the looming environmental threat. 

It took 2.21 cents for every litre of gasoline and 2.63 cents for every litre of diesel paid in motor fuel taxes and dedicated it to the fund, which was to be used for projects that would help stave off climate change – such as reducing energy consumption – or adapt to it – such as building bigger storm sewers.

But within months, the government’s plan was in tatters after Ottawa rejected it for not doing enough to reduce greenhouse gases.

The newly elected Progressive Conservative government, which came to power in October 2018, was forced to abandon the plan and adopt a federal backstop that put a more severe price on carbon, including fuel consumption, on March 31, 2019.

But before doing so, it put forward an amendment to the Climate Change Act, which gave it legal permission to drop any unused portion of the fund into the government’s general revenues, a catch-all term for the province’s overall funds, which it can spend as it sees fit.

“The bill was debated openly and transparently on the floor of the legislature and came into force on March 31, 2019,” said Mary-Anne Hurley-Corbyn, a spokeswoman for the Department of Environment and Local Government, in an email to the Daily Gleaner Thursday. “All members of government at the time supported the bill, which saw $3.8 million go to general revenue.”

Anderson-Mason, who was a member of the Tory cabinet in 2019 as attorney general and justice minister but lost those positions when the Tories were re-elected last year, left it up to the deputy minister to explain Thursday that by the spring of 2019, the climate change fund had more than $37 million in it. The Tory government, Libby said, opted to only spend about $33 million of the total, leaving just under $4 million.

The deputy minister said since then, any money that’s been tucked away for climate change action has been spent or carried forward to the new year. What happened in 2018-19 was an exception, Libby said.

Green party MLA Megan Mitton said she was troubled by the idea that $4 million wasn’t simply rolled forward to the next year’s budget for its intended purposes, namely combating climate change and helping people fend off flooding. The province was hit by two successive monster spring floods in 2018 and 2019.

“The government decided to not spend $4 million,” she said during the virtual session. “To not spend $4 million in the middle of a climate crisis that was earmarked for climate change, I would argue is unacceptable. Taxpayers wouldn’t be pleased to know the money wasn’t spent for the reason it was supposed to for such a high-priority issue.”

Under further questioning from Anderson-Mason, the deputy minister said the climate change projects that did receive funds that year were decided by the government, in consultation with various departments.

“Our expectation at the time was any unused dollars would be rolled over within that special purpose account to be used within the next year,” Libby said. “As a result it being year one of the fund, we were very cautious about committing to projects.”