Ambition, Arrogance and Ontario’s Appetite for Climate Change

How will the Ontario government’s $7 billion Climate Change Action Plan affect the province’s agriculture industry?

Based on the details released this week in the Globe and Mail, the big jolt would likely come in the form of a phase-out of natural gas in the province. Farm leaders have lobbied hard for the gasification of rural Ontario in hopes of bringing a cheaper energy source to Ontario farmers. The ag industry was happy to see the commitment to rural gas renewed in the provincial budget last April, but the Globe and Mail reports the Liberal government now intends to begin phasing out gas for residential heating. What does that mean for rural Ontario’s gas hopes?

For now, farm leaders are keeping their cards close to the vest. Ontario Federation of Agriculture president Don McCabe told Real Agriculture he would prefer to comment on the plan when it’s released in June rather than weighing in on the leaked report. “Someone has an agenda. I think we best wait to see what it looks like,” says McCabe.

For now, the ambitious plan appears to touch almost every aspect of life: phasing out reliance on natural gas and fossil fuels at home and at work; increasing reliance on electricity and geothermal systems for new home construction; challenging the auto industry to make a gigantic leap in electric car production and sales and much more. From an agriculture perspective, there does appear to be opportunity in the form of incentives for biofuel sales and use, including ethanol blends.

According to reports, the plan will roll out over the next four years and Ontario could be a much different place by 2030.

There’s no doubt who’s behind the wheel of the Liberal’s climate change bus. Environment Minister Glenn Murray continues to push for ambitious change and is the chief architect of the Climate Change Action Plan. Ontario farmers are very familiar with the level of Murray’s determination as evidenced in his pursuit of new seed treatment regulations limiting the use of neonicotinoids.

It appears, however, that not all the Liberal caucus members, including ministers from key portfolios, are happy with their seat on the bus, Murray’s driving or his direction. Reports indicate that both Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli and Economic Development Minister Brad Duguid have been relegated to the back seat with their strategic insights and advice being ignored. Murray has also been chastised for being arrogant after publicly criticizing the auto industry for lack of leadership in fighting climate change.

The phase out of natural gas casts doubt on rural Ontario’s hopes for gasification. It also puts Duguid in a tough spot. Last April, the Ontario government announced a $230 million plan to expand natural gas access. Duguid said at the time: “We know that expanded access to natural gas is important to families and businesses in communities across Ontario.”

In a February interview with Real Agriculture, Jeff Leal, Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, also trumpeted bringing natural gas to rural Ontario when assessing his government’s budget.

If the Climate Change Action Plan proceeds as reported, no doubt all government MPPs are aware they will have to sell a potential $2,000 to $3,000 home heating cost increase to Ontarians. That’s how much industry sources believe it will cost to switch from gas to electricity based on current prices.

Who wins the political tussle will be evident after the Action Plan is officially released in June. Whatever climate change stake the province puts in the ground, it will likely set the stage for the next provincial election, expected in the summer of 2018. Grain Farmers of Ontario, after losing its court battle to halt the new seed treatment regulations, has already switched its focus to the coming election. It will seek to make access to seed treatments and technology an issue during the campaign. The provincial Conservatives are also gearing up for the fight with new leader Patrick Brown working to put a new face to the party, which includes softening its position on climate change.

How Ontario agriculture responds to the final Action Plan will certainly help cement the rural Ontario election landscape for 2018. How Ontario’s vote-rich urban ridings respond will carry even more weight in what could become a referendum on government ambition, arrogance and appetite for climate change.

 

Bernard Tobin

Bernard Tobin is Real Agriculture's Ontario Field Editor. AgBern was raised on a dairy farm near St. John's, Newfoundland. For the past two decades, he has specialized in agricultural communications. A Ryerson University journalism grad, he kicked off his career with a seven-year stint as Managing Editor and Field Editor for Farm and Country magazine. He has received six Canadian Farm Writers' Federation awards for journalism excellence. He's also worked for two of Canada's leading agricultural communications firms, providing public relations, branding and strategic marketing. Bern also works for Guelph-based Synthesis Agri-Food Network and talks the Real Dirt on Farming.

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