Ag issues to watch as Alberta enters election

The Alberta election campaign is expected to be highly divisive before people head to the polls April 16.

The battle for power so far is primarily between the United Conservative Party and the governing NDP, with leaders of each party offering differing visions for the province.

The UCP is leading the race, according to some opinion polls, but the party could lose traction as the RCMP investigate former leadership candidate Jeff Callaway’s campaign for irregular political contributions during the 2017 leadership race.

For agriculture, the issues that will likely dominate the headlines include Alberta’s crude-by-rail plan, farm safety, the carbon tax, research funding, abandoned oil and gas wells and rural school funding.

Crude by rail

There are concerns grain shipments will stall once Alberta begins shipping more oil by rail.

The province is spending $3.7 billion to move 120,000 barrels per day by mid 2020, with smaller shipments to begin this summer.

Premier Rachel Notley argues the rail cars are needed to carry more Alberta oil to market, considering that pipeline delays have stalled industry expansion plans. She has said grain will get top priority.

Producer groups, however, worry more oil by rail will create logjams, delaying grain shipments to export markets.

Effects of the plan won’t be known until they are in place, but transportation experts think grain should remain unscathed.

UCP leader Jason Kenney has said he would cancel the crude-by-rail plan with Canadian Pacific Railway and Canadian National Railway, arguing the province could make better use of the money.

Carbon tax

The carbon tax might become the biggest political football during the upcoming campaign period.

The UCP plans to scrap the tax, which applies to home heating and purchases at gas pumps.

Farmers are exempt from paying the tax on marked fuel and diesel but largely disapprove of it because it affects their bottom lines in other areas.

The NDP, however, has argued the tax has reduced emissions and spurred economic development in green technologies, offering people renewable electricity alternatives that, if adopted, lower costs in the long run.

The tax has funnelled millions of dollars to rural Alberta, whether for upgrading farm equipment and buildings or for electricity projects in community buildings, the NDP says.

Farm safety

Alberta’s newly enforced farm safety legislation will get scrapped if the UCP forms government this spring.

The legislation, which was consulted on at length, has been contentious with farmers, requiring people with non-family employees to have mandatory Workers Compensation Board coverage and follow a set of regulations. (Related story here.)

Research funding

Agriculture research recently entered the political arena with concerns it’s becoming less farmer-led.

The UCP says the NDP has slowed funding to some research organizations, taking more control over dollars.

The NDP has said producers are still heavily involved in research. The government is now focusing on public good research, according to Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier, rather than funding large profitable corporations.

Abandoned oil and gas wells

There are a growing number of abandoned oil and gas wells on farmland, leaving farmers un-compensated and many have been stuck with the clean-up bill.

As well, some operational oil and gas companies have chosen not to pay municipal taxes, putting communities in a difficult position to fund critical services.

The NDP has introduced a number of measures to help with the problem and is expected to unveil more plans to crack down on bad industry players.

In government, the NDP has so far given the Alberta Energy Regulator the authority to tag bad operators, allowing it to not re-authorize drilling licences if they re-enter industry.

The UCP hasn’t yet announced plans to address this problem head-on but has said it would review property rights legislation if elected.

The recent Redwater Supreme Court ruling has also changed the game, ensuring bankrupt companies fulfill their environmental clean-up duties before their assets go to bank creditors.

Rural school funding

Rural school advocates are hoping the next government will re-vamp the current funding model, ensuring education in small communities remains viable.

The NDP has said it would look at the model if elected for another term.

The UCP, however, has indicated it would freeze education funding, meaning growing schools wouldn’t get more cash.

Advocates say freezing education might have marginal, if any effects, on rural schools.

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