Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre is calling on the Liberals to exempt all forms of home heating from the carbon price, after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a temporary exemption that only applies to home heating oil.

The federal government announced last week that it is increasing the carbon price rebate for rural Canadians and lifting the carbon price off home heating oil entirely for the next three years.

Poilievre wrote a letter to Trudeau on Sunday urging the government to expand the exemption to all forms of home heating, including natural gas, which is more common in Western Canada.

"In pausing the tax on home heating oil until after the election, however, you plan to keep the tax on lower-emitting natural gas heat for which bills will be jumping even further in mere weeks as it gets colder," wrote Poilievre. 

"That is why common sense Conservatives are offering our full co-operation to pass an emergency bill tomorrow to axe the carbon tax on all forms of heat before winter heat bills hit Canadians next month."

The carbon price is intended to make fossil fuels more expensive as an energy source, to encourage people to find cleaner alternatives. 

But Trudeau said last week it had become clear that wasn’t happening when it came to heat pumps, in part because it takes time and money to make the switch, so giving people more time to make the switch before paying the carbon price was a good choice.

The changes to the carbon pricing regime come as affordability concerns leave the Liberal party flailing in the polls in Atlantic Canada, and one of Trudeau's Atlantic cabinet ministers suggested politics were at play in the decision. 

In an interview with CTV News on the weekend, Rural Economic Development Minister Gudie Hutchings said the Liberals' Atlantic caucus pushed for the changes to home heating oil. Most Atlantic Liberals MPs stood behind Trudeau as he made the announcement on Oct. 26.

Hutchings suggested that perhaps Prairie provinces should elect more Liberals to push for exemptions that affect constituents in those provinces, prompting backlash.

"Atlantic caucus was vocal with what they've heard from their constituents, and perhaps they need to elect more Liberals in the Prairies so that we can have that conversation as well," Hutchings said.

The Conservatives jumped all over that comment on Monday, calling it proof that the carbon tax was never an environmental plan, but a tax plan.

"And the announcement this week was about the Liberals' plummeting poll numbers, not about doing what is right for Canadians," a statement from the party said.

"Minister Hutchings just said as much when she told Canadians west of Ottawa that they’d need to elect more Liberals to get a reprieve from their punitive taxes."

Liberal House leader Karina Gould said the Conservatives know that the carbon price comes with a rebate program to offset the increased cost, while still providing an incentive to cut fossil-fuel use. That's because the rebates remain intact even if you cut down on your fossil-fuel use and therefore pay less carbon price.

"The leader of the Opposition knows that Canadians who live in jurisdictions where the price on pollution applies get over $1,000 a year from the government of Canada to fight climate change," said Gould, referring to Poilievre.

"When it comes to the Conservatives, they want to take that $1,000 out of the pockets of Canadians."

Gould also said Liberal climate policy is working, noting that Canada's emissions were 53 million tonnes lower in 2021 than they were in 2019, or the amount produced by 11 million cars over a year. 

"While they keep their heads in the sand and pretend that climate change isn't real, we're gonna fight climate change and we're gonna help Canadians with affordability."

The carbon pricing change also sparked backlash from premiers of provinces where residents rely more on natural gas for home heating and therefore would still have to pay the carbon price. 

On Monday, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe threatened that SaskEnergy will stop collecting the carbon price on natural gas, effective Jan. 1, if the federal government does not extend the exemption to all forms of home heating.

"The prime minister chose to make life more affordable for families in one part of the country, while leaving Saskatchewan families out in the cold. How is that fair to families here in our province?" Moe said in a video posted to X, formerly known as Twitter.

"You heard them. The carbon tax isn't about reducing emissions, it's punishment for not voting Liberal. There are no words to describe how absurd and damaging this is to our confederation," Smith posted on X.

Statistics Canada reports that in 2021, only three per cent of households nationally relied on home heating oil, while 44 per cent used natural gas and 40 per cent used electricity.

But the regional variation is large. Four in 10 households in Prince Edward Island use heating oil, as do one in three in Nova Scotia, while that falls to less than five per cent in Quebec and Ontario and to virtually zero in Western Canada. About eight in 10 households in Alberta and Saskatchewan use natural gas, as do two-thirds of homes in Ontario, and about half in both Manitoba and B.C.

From an emissions perspective, home heating oil produces about 42 per cent more greenhouse-gas emissions than natural gas to get the same amount of energy, according to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 30, 2023. 

— With files from Mia Rabson.