Good morning, it’s James Keller in Calgary.
Alberta’s economic problems have dragged on pretty much through the NDP government’s entire time in office. Oil prices plunged a year before Premier Rachel Notley won the 2015 election, setting off years of job losses, bankruptcies, and a contracting economy that has yet to see a significant recovery. An already bad situation became worse last fall, when prices for Alberta crude hit record lows as the discount, or differential, compared with West Texas Intermediate reached US$50 a barrel. Producers were basically giving their oil away.
With more than 170,000 people currently out of work, and many more simply giving up looking for a job, that economic pain is expected to define the spring provincial election. And the choices facing voters – Who is best suited to push the province into a recovery? And just how will they do it? – are becoming more clear as the campaign draws closer.
All of the parties seem to agree that new pipelines – and the Trans Mountain expansion project in particular – are the clearest solution to what ails the oil sector. But Trans Mountain could still be years away and it’s not clear what a new premier could even to do push the project along. So what to do in the meantime?
Ms. Notley’s New Democrats will largely point to policies the government has already put in place in the past few months. In the short-term, the province imposed oil-production cuts that have been effective in pushing up prices for Alberta crude (though not without some gripes from within the industry). Next, the NDP government signed contracts to lease rail cars to increase rail shipments as soon as July. And over the long-term, Ms. Notley’s government has been handing out grants and loan guarantees to entice new upgrading and refining projects. And Ms. Notley has cancelled planned increases to the carbon tax until the pipeline expansion is built.
The United Conservative Party’s Jason Kenney has been slowly adding to his platform as well. He has focused on putting the province on a combative stance to aggressively make Alberta’s case to the rest of the country. He said he would threaten to cut off oil shipments to provinces that obstruct oil pipelines, call on the federal government to cut transfers to those provinces, target environmental groups’ charity status and hold a provincial referendum on the equalization. Mr. Kenney would also cancel the carbon tax immediately upon taking office.
But while he has accused the New Democrats of mismanaging the industry, he hasn’t revealed much about how he would actually govern the oil sector differently than the current government – until this week. The Premier’s rail car plan had been in the works for months and would be a marquee of a re-elected NDP government. When the details were released, Mr. Kenney was unimpressed and quickly promised to scrap the entire program. The private sector will invest in rail when the economics make sense, Mr. Kenney said, and there’s no reason to shoulder taxpayers with a costly and risky plan that amounts to corporate welfare.
Beyond that, while he was an early supporter of the production cuts, he has criticized how they’ve been implemented, though he hasn’t said what he would do differently. And he notes that the party will release a full platform soon, so we’re expecting more to come about the UCP’s approach.
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here. This is a new project and we’ll be experimenting as we go, so let us know what you think.
Around the West:
TRANS MOUNTAIN: The National Energy Board has concluded the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion should go ahead, even though the increased tanker traffic it spurs will probably harm the endangered southern resident killer whale population. The NEB set out 156 conditions the government must meet and imposed a further 16 specifically aimed at mitigating the impact on the whales. While the board acknowledged most of the risk of an oil spill would be borne by Indigenous communities, it concluded that the benefits to the country justified the risks.
Still, the ruling brings the pipeline only a tiny bit closer toward completion: Indigenous groups vowed further lawsuits, something Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said she would be expecting. And B.C. Premier John Horgan, whose government opposed the pipeline in court, said British Columbia will be proceeding with its reference case determining whether the province has the ability to restrict the flow of oil across its borders.
BC BUDGET: The provincial NDP introduced its budget for the coming year and for the seventh year in a row, the province is expected to balance the books. But Finance Minister Carole James is relying heavily on a recovery in the province’s real estate market and in fact, for property taxes to rise at double the rate of the growth of the economy overall.
Her officials told reporters that the dip – prompted by new provincial taxes on real estate but especially by a new, federally imposed stress test for borrowers – is over. But Ms. James herself sounded a more cautious tone in her remarks. She is not convinced the market has hit a stable point, and said that home prices – especially in Metro Vancouver and Victoria – have not come down enough to satisfy her government’s goal of affordability.
“I believe there is more [correction] to go,” she told reporters.
RESTRAINTS BANNED: Alberta’s Education Minister David Eggen is moving to ban school-seclusion rooms following reports from parents who say their children with special needs suffered emotional and physical trauma from being restrained or confined. The rooms are to be decommissioned by the coming academic year. The move comes following a recent analysis of survey data by Inclusion Alberta, a group that advocates on behalf of people with developmental disabilities. The group found more than half of parents in the province said their children with special needs were restrained at school or confined in seclusion rooms. The survey of nearly 400 families included voices of parents who spoke of the trauma their children experienced. Some said they turned to home-schooling their children.
ICBC: Justine Hunter exclusively reported this week that B.C. doctors are being coached by trial lawyers to avoid classifying motor-vehicle injuries as “minor” under new rules that, starting in April, will cap some claims. “An early and optimistic prognosis will have a devastating impact on your patients’ legal rights if their recovery does not ultimately follow this course,” law firm Murphy Battista warned physicians in a Jan. 24 letter. "An example of a way in which a patient’s rights can be protected is if the family physician explains they ‘don’t yet know’ whether an injury will cause that patient ‘serious impairment.’ ”
That letter and others like it have prompted the organization representing physicians to urge its members to guard against what it describes as a campaign of misinformation around the changes to insurance settlements introduced by the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia.
SUPERVISED-INJECTION SITES: The push to expand supervised drug-consumption sites as a way to curb the opioid crisis has repeatedly run up against concerns from potential neighbours that the facilities bring all sorts of problems with them. In Calgary, in which a site called Safeworks opened in the downtown Beltline neighbourhood a year ago, the local police department and even politicians who support the facility have raised concerns about an increase in social disorder, public drug use, and petty crimes. Justin Giovannetti looks at the debate, and fears that the problems plaguing Safeworks could erode public support for such harm-reduction services if the police and health officials can’t get things under control.
Robert Ragotte on the latest measles outbreaks, including one in Vancouver: “Mandatory vaccination is a pragmatic solution to a growing problem. For millennia, death by common infectious disease was an inescapable fate for many. We are fortunate to live in a time and place where this is not the case – and it is our collective responsibility to preserve this.”
Gary Mason on the BC legislature scandal: “The proud people of British Columbia have known their fair share of political scandals over the years. They watched a Premier’s home being raided by police on live TV. They had another admit to accepting an envelope stuffed with $20,000 in $100 bills from a Taiwanese billionaire – a real estate transaction that would ultimately cost him his political career. A cabinet minister once showed up at the legislature with a black eye courtesy of the husband of a woman with whom he was spending time. The legislature has come by its nickname, The Zoo, honestly.”
Duane Bratt on the United We Roll protest: “By not properly vetting participants, a percentage of the media coverage and social-media commentary was not about oil and gas policy, but about the more odious aspects of the convoy. In addition, because the convoy lacked one key spokesperson, it allowed everyone to claim to speak for the group, even on matters that were unconnected to the stated goal of promoting oil and gas. This meant at best a disjointed message, and at worse a racist message.”
Jen Gerson on the SNC-Lavalin scandal: “We are just two weeks into the SNC-Lavalin affair, and already this scandal has exhausted a country’s goodwill, its credulity – and its store of metaphors for political ritual-suicide and murder. A weary nation can tolerate no more references to the bullet, the sword or the bus under which one is thrown.”