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Robert Lyman: Steven Guilbeault's counter-intuitive war on cars


Steven Guilbeault, minister of environment and climate change, recently said the federal government will not fund new road construction, since doing so would only encourage increased use of cars, which would be contrary to the government’s goal of eliminating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050. When criticized, he changed tack, noting that, “We’re moving more and more towards electric vehicles, but that in itself doesn’t justify inviting urban sprawl.” Canadians are left wondering whether their betters in Ottawa are more offended by their stubborn insistence on driving cars with internal combustion engines (ICEs) or by their inclination to reside in larger residences at longer distances from urban cores.

They can be excused if they are confused about what Minister Guilbeault and his cabinet colleagues are really up to. The government itself  seems confused. Its antipathy to light duty vehicles powered by ICEs is of course part of its crusade to end the use of fossil fuels, no matter how great the economic benefits associated with them. Such vehicles now produce 13 per cent of all Canadian GHG emissions, so even eliminating them entirely by 2050, which is probably impossible anyway, would still leave the government far short of net zero. It nevertheless has deployed a complete arsenal of policy instruments in pursuit of that elusive goal — carbon taxes, fuel standard regulations, vehicle emission intensity regulations, mandated minimum sales of electric vehicles and endless subsidies to alternative fuels, rapid transit and so on.

At the same time, however, through its Canada Community Building Fund, formerly called the Gas Tax Fund, Ottawa gives the provinces more than $2 billion per year to help municipalities pay for thousands of minor “infrastructure” projects, including construction and maintenance of highways, bridges and roads. If Minister Guilbeault tries to end this funding, he may encounter stout resistance from his cabinet colleagues, especially in rural areas, where the largest proportion of projects have been funded. Yet road construction and maintenance facilitate car use, do they not?


Minister Guilbeault has another weapon at his disposal to stop new road construction: mandatory reviews under the Impact Assessment Act and its “physical activities regulations,” which require designated projects to undergo lengthy review and assessment to ensure they contribute to attainment of net zero. The reviews, whose duration is often a kiss of death to projects, apply to the construction and operation of any new all-season public highway that requires a total of 75 kilometres or more of new rights of way. Plus: any highway that survives this regulatory gauntlet also requires approval of the minister of environment and climate change, which of course the current minister would be almost certain to withhold.

Last October the Supreme Court judged the current “designated projects” scheme created by the Impact Assessment Act beyond the legislative authority of the federal government and therefore unconstitutional. If it wishes to preserve the legislation, Ottawa will have to amend it to be more specific in defining exactly which effects are within federal jurisdiction. The government likely will seek amendments preserving federal authority to review and withhold approval of new highways, but it may have trouble making this case for highways that do not cross inter-provincial or international boundaries.

If the objective really is to limit urban sprawl, Minister Guilbeault may wish to have a word with his colleague, the minister of immigration. The country’s population and its housing needs are being driven by immigration, which the government projects will total 1.5 million through 2026. Every major city is experiencing the impact of this influx on residential development outside its urban core. More people means more people using roads. Maybe the government is confused about that, as well.

Robert Lyman is a retired energy economist.