Carbon tax remains thorny subject in Alberta

Most farmers are opposed to the levy because they consider it a cash grab, but a few say they don’t mind paying it

Jordan Schuurman has a different take than most farmers on Alberta’s carbon tax.

The Edmonton-area dairy farmer doesn’t mind paying the levy, but he makes it clear he’s no environmental activist and is generally wary of government programs.

But, he said, his solar panels that were partly funded by the contentious tax have been helpful for his operation, significantly reducing his electricity costs.

“No one is forcing you to put up solar panels or forcing you to install windmills. You can opt in as a producer and the burden of responsibility is on you,” said Schuurman on his farm near Kavanagh.

“For the price of a pick-up truck, I was able to put this on the roof of my barn. It returns income to me every day and runs flawlessly.”

Viewpoints like Schuurman’s are few and far between among farmers during this provincial election campaign.

Many would love to see the carbon tax go away.

“It’s perceived as a cash grab, so right away it hasn’t become very popular. It’s become a tainted thing,” said Charlie Christie, chair of Alberta Beef Producers.

“It’s hard to cut back on carbon usage, especially for people in rural Alberta. You have to use power when you need it.”

The tax has been a sticking point ever since PremierRachel Notley’s NDP government introduced it in 2017, sparking increases in gasoline and natural gas prices, as well as driving up farm operational costs.

Farmers have been exempt from the tax for marked fuel and diesel, but many say the exemptions aren’t enough to ease costs.

“We would like to see more exemptions. We are price takers, not price givers,” said Gary Stanford, chair of the Alberta Wheat Commission, whose carbon tax bill reached close to $6,000 last year.

But from the tax, roughly $49.5 million has gone to fund agriculture energy efficiency programs, or for agricultural societies to also upgrade the energy efficiencies of buildings, according to provincial data.

Through popular programs like Growing Forward, the carbon tax has helped fund efficient irrigation pivots, improved grain dryers, cattle waterers, solar panels, lighting, pumps and heaters and for a company to develop a feed ingredient to reduce methane in cattle. It has also helped to fund energy efficiency programs for agri-processors.

Greenhouse growers were given an 80 percent rebate from paying the tax.

Even though many farmers say the programs have been helpful, they haven’t garnered much support.

“They are never not helpful and producers have been taking advantage of them,” said David Bishop, chair of the Alberta Barley Commission.

“But you’re looking at the carbon levy and selling a product, and we can’t add that extra cost of the carbon levy into the product. We wish it wasn’t there and it’s something we have to deal with.”

Some farmers say they aren’t aware the tax has funded such projects, suggesting the provincial government could have communicated the benefits.

“I think those benefits, with funds going to programs, have been poorly understood by industry,” said Tom Koostra, chair of Alberta Milk.

“We support the government’s initiative in protecting the environment, but we question the value of the carbon tax.”

NDP candidate Oneil Carlier, who served as the agriculture minister in the previous government, acknowledged the province could have better communicated the benefits of the tax, but defended the plan.

“We made sure exemptions were in place and that there were great programs to take advantage of,” he said, adding he thinks there are opportunities for offset programs for grasslands and zero-till, which help sequester carbon.

“Without Alberta’s plan, the federal carbon levy would kick in.”

For the most part, however, many farmers suggest the costs outweigh any benefits from the programs.

They say the tax also puts them at a disadvantage to farming competitors in the United States who don’t have to pay a levy.

“We’re not opposed to reducing our footprint, but we are at a disadvantage with the tax. Our neighbours to the south don’t have to pay it, and our neighbours in Saskatchewan and Manitoba haven’t had to pay it,” said Darcy Fitzgerald, executive director of Alberta Pork.

While there are no provincial carbon tax programs in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, farmers there are faced with having to pay the federal government’s carbon tax starting April 1.

In Alberta, many grower groups hope that whoever wins the election will exempt farmers from paying the tax on natural gas and propane.

“We certainly feel it’s important to green the economy and producers have already over decades made investments to become energy efficient, but we need to absolutely see a full exemption for agriculture,” said Karen Kirkwood, executive director of Alberta Chicken Producers.

“It’s been detrimental to our producers.”

The United Conservative Party has proposed scrapping the levy and fighting the federal tax in court, though some legal experts believe the case is dubious.

The federal tax, however, could be scrapped if the Conservatives win the election later this fall.

“We know it’s a tax grab,” said Dan Williams, the UCP candidate for Peace River. “Farmers are intelligent people and they can see right through it.”

Back on Schuurman’s dairy farm, he believes there are two reasons why most farmers don’t like the tax.

For one, he said he thinks some people believe climate change is a myth.

Two, the people of Alberta have what he calls a free spirit. They don’t like government telling them what to do.

“In agriculture, I understand the margins we are working with are tight and getting tighter, but I do appreciate that with this tax, some things aren’t taxed and it’s trying to make things work for everyone, like low-income families,” he said.

If the tax stays in place, he says it should go to programs that make people take ownership of the problem, much like the current agriculture programs in place.

“I don’t want to be associated with people who want big radical changes to the environment. I believe in a sensible and measured approach, which is why I think the carbon levy works,” he said.

Carbon tax facts:

  • Alberta’s carbon tax has pulled in more than $2 billion since it was implemented two years ago.
  • $450 million has gone to rebates and $220 million to cut small business taxes.
  • $33.5 million went to the Calgary’s LRT expansion and $230 million to Edmonton’s LRT build-out.
  • The tax has funded 2,000 projects in rural Alberta.

Source: Alberta government data

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