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May 25, 2023
Alberta election: What are the frontrunners' plans for oil and gas?
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Albertans are heading to the polls for a May 29 general election, and the two frontrunners vying for the premiership are toeing a delicate line when it comes to their oil and gas industry pledges in a particularly tight race.
United Conservative Danielle Smith and New Democrat Rachel Notley have kept their parties’ respective plans for the economically vital energy industry in vague, broad terms in the run-up to the vote, focusing on long-term visions and their past records in political office.
Lori William, an associate professor in policy at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, said the vagueness is likely by design as the two rivals try to keep a diversity of voters happy when it comes to energy and environmental policies.
“They have to be a little bit on the vague side in order to avoid losing the support of one sector or another,” Williams told BNNBloomberg.ca in a telephone interview.
WHAT ARE THE PARTIES PROMISING?
The United Conservative Party’s (UCP) energy platform is mainly focused on items the party has carried out while in government, including funding for petrochemical, hydrogen natural gas projects.
It also points to a panel that is currently looking at a “long-term vision for Alberta’s energy future,” and cites plans to develop the renewable energy sector while “working alongside our traditional energy resources.”
The NDP, meanwhile, speaks more explicitly on the need to diversify sources of energy with greater focus on renewables. The party is touting plans to speed up project approvals for businesses with “good records,” and its campaign materials also directly reference the need to compete with the United States’ green technology subsidies. The NDP is offering tax credits for emerging industries that may create future job opportunities.
Smith has pushed back against many of Ottawa’s climate and energy transition targets, and even introduced a law with the intention of letting the province bypass some federal rules that the province considers opposed to its interests. Left-leaning Notley is seen as more aligned with the federal Liberals’ goals on the environment, but she has also been critical in some areas, taking the position that federal caps on oil producer emissions are too aggressive.
Polls have placed the two leaders as neck-and-neck ahead of Monday’s vote.
ENERGY VS ENVIRONMENT
Both main party leaders have served as premier in recent memory. Smith is fighting to keep her role as the incumbent premier, while Notley is trying to win her job back after serving as premier from 2015 to 2019. The frontrunners have used their opponents’ records in office as targets for political attacks.
A pilot program introduced by Smith that would give royalties to oil companies to help them clean up environmental messes has attracted controversy and criticism from environmental and business communities, and it’s been a target of NDP criticism during the campaign.
Notley, meanwhile, has been fending off accusations from Smith that she is too sympathetic to federal Liberal climate goals that might negatively affect fossil fuels producers, though she has pointed to her history of fighting for pipelines to be built while she was in office.
Williams said the tension between energy and environmental concerns on the campaign trail speaks to the diversity of approaches to the issue within the oil and gas industry itself.
Big energy players like Suncor have responded to climate change and environmental concerns by investing in cleaner energy sources and carbon capture technology, while smaller producers have not embraced environmental transition pressures as openly, Williams said.
That dynamic may be one reason why the frontrunners are unwilling to put clear definitions to their plans for the industry, she said – especially because Calgary, which houses many of the head offices for oil companies, is poised to be a major deciding battleground for votes.
“The oil and gas industry isn’t a monolith,” she said. “It’s very risky to take a stand because there's a distinct possibility that you're going to alienate some of the voters you need in this very close election.”
That’s especially true for Notley, Williams added, because frustration among Alberta conservatives regarding Smith’s controversy-marred leadership has seen some willing to lend the NDP their votes this time around.
Alberta is known for its low taxation compared with other Canadian provinces, and taxes on corporations and business have been featured in both main party platforms.
The UCP said it will not impose tax hikes, and is promising to extend a freeze on the provincial gas tax until the end of this year.
The NDP promised to eliminate a tax on small businesses but it intends to raise corporate taxes to 11 per cent from eight per cent if elected.
While the NDP is stressing that its higher corporate tax rate will still be the lowest among Canadian provinces, Williams pointed out that “a tax increase is not the sort of thing that tends to be very popular during election.”
“It'll be interesting to see whether or not that had much of an impact,” she said.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business surveyed its members before the election, and found tax relief was a top concern among small businesses in the province.
Andrew Sennyah, senior Alberta policy analyst with the CFIB, said the organization is pleased that tax relief has been addressed by both major parties, though other concerns like addressing the labour shortage and reducing red tape have gotten less attention.
Big-picture tensions over environmental and oil industry concerns have been less pressing for small businesses that are still recovering from the last three years of COVID-19’s financial impacts, he added.
“The priority is paying down their debt accrued during the pandemic,” Sennyah said.
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