03/03/2016 05:00 EST | Updated 03/04/2017 00:12 EST

Ottawa willing to impose carbon price if impasse drags on

The federal government is prepared to impose a national price on carbon if Canada's premiers fail to come to an agreement on their own, CBC News has learned. 

Putting a price tag on pollution would pit Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government against some provincial premiers who see the move as another blow to an enfeebled economy.

A senior official close to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the Liberal government campaigned on environmental change and won a majority. 

"We feel that we've got a mandate to do it. And we want to do it in co-operation with the provinces," the official said. "But at the end of the day we are going to do it."

Federal action isn't imminent, but Ottawa won't allow carbon price talks to drag on indefinitely.

"This should be a conversation about how we are going to price carbon, not whether," said the source. 

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall has been the loudest critic of a carbon tax, saying it will only hammer an already sluggish energy sector.

Wall told reporters on Wednesday that he wasn't alone in his position, and that's been backed up in public and private statements by officials from other provinces here in Vancouver. 

"You're going to hear a lot more about carbon management than carbon pricing," said one premier in explaining the view in their private meetings. 

Six provinces already have a price on carbon. Penalizing polluters financially is aimed at curbing the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. 

Provinces seek flexibility

The recognition that the premiers won't reach a consensus on a carbon price means the focus in their talks has shifted to areas where there is broad agreement with Ottawa. Provincial sources said they are working to find ways to advance Trudeau's environmental agenda as a sign of good faith to a willing federal partner. 

The provinces are collating a list of major projects that will help advance the climate change agenda. Each project will come with a price tag attached — which will require federal money — but also a tally of the greenhouse gas emissions each project will displace. It would be a menu of things the provinces can do fairly quickly and that would help create jobs.

It is something the federal government is willing to consider, but not without taking a hard look at the projects.  

"We have to be funding the right projects, not just everybody's pet projects," said the federal source. 

One common theme in conversations with officials and politicians from several provinces is that there is a clear desire not to validate the approach of former prime minister Stephen Harper, who avoided these kinds of meetings entirely.

So while the provinces and Ottawa likely won't be able to agree on a carbon price, the focus will be to stress the areas where they have made progress and highlight the value of continuing to hold regular first ministers meetings. 

"Why come out with the same dissent as when they had a prime minister who wouldn't deal with them?" said one senior provincial official. 

But multiple provincial officials all stressed a need for the federal government to be flexible in these talks and allow the provinces to tackle climate change in a way that's appropriate to their own local circumstances.

"The main thing is that the provinces would have flexibility to reduce carbon as they see fit," said Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball.