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fossil fuel tax

Environment Minister Shannon Phillips says tracking impacts on the province’s air, land and water is too important to be left to a group outside government.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Alberta is moving to turn its ambitious climate-change plan into law with the introduction of legislation to tax purchases of all fossil fuels, including gasoline and natural gas.

Bill 20, introduced on Tuesday, is one of the first major steps by the Alberta government to formalize grand plans unveiled last November, when it announced a sweeping climate-change plan meant to significantly reduce or cap the province's greenhouse-gas emissions.

Improving Alberta's environmental reputation is seen as crucial by the NDP government and some energy industry leaders, who believe that the strategy will help attract investment in the oil and gas sector, put greater emphasis on technology and renewable energy and win support to build one or more new pipelines to Canadian coasts.

"The Climate Leadership Plan will diversify our economy, create new jobs, improve the health of Albertans and erase any doubt about our environmental record," Environment Minister Shannon Phillips said. "It will also open up new markets for our products."

But critics believe that the carbon levies are being introduced at the worst possible time for the province, which has seen its unemployment rate jump and its economy shrink because of almost two years of lower oil prices. Opposition parties argue that the levies, which are meant to spur reductions in the use of fossil fuels, will raise the price of everything for Albertans, and unnecessarily add to the costs for institutions such as universities, colleges and charities.

Still, the province introduced legislation on Tuesday that would enable the use of carbon levies on transportation and heating fuels, formalize the new carbon price at $20 a tonne in 2017 and $30 a tonne in 2018, and amend the Alberta Personal Income Tax Act to allow consumer carbon-levy rebates.

The bill would also amend the Alberta Corporate Tax Act to reduce small-business taxes to 2 per cent, from the current 3 per cent, next year to help smaller firms adjust to the cost of the carbon tax.

The Climate Leadership Implementation Act would also lead to the establishment of a new government agency to deliver energy-efficiency programs and help to develop an energy-efficiency services industry.

Still to come are specific pieces of legislation related to other aspects of the NDP government's climate plan, including a 100-megatonne limit on carbon emissions from the oil sands.

Rebates that would begin flowing to lower- and middle-income Albertans in January, 2017, are meant to take the edge off the sting of the new carbon taxes. For example, a couple earning up to $95,000 a year would receive $300 annually, plus an additional $30 a child.

The province expects that the 60 per cent of Alberta households that would receive the full, non-taxable rebate would have the "direct" costs of the carbon levy more than covered by the rebate system.

However, officials say those same households could pay an additional $70 to $105 annually in indirect costs related to the levies, as Alberta-based companies pass on their new costs to consumers.

In its April budget, the government said it expects to raise $9.6-billion through levies on both consumers and heavy emitters over the next five years. The government insisted this week that the money raised from the levies would go only to dedicated uses, including actions that address climate change, or helping small businesses, First Nations or people working in the coal industry adapt to the new scheme, as well as the household rebates.

Some uses would be exempted from the levy system, including work done by farmers and First Nation communities – with further details to come through regulations this year.

Last month, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said Alberta municipalities should also be exempt from the carbon levies or should receive a rebate. Mr. Nenshi said the levies would cost Calgary millions each year, and could force the city to cut services or raise municipal taxes.