Canadian farmers may have to wait months to find out if they will owe thousands of dollars for carbon pricing this year, as a bill that would give them a new exemption remains mired in political conflict.
The legislation has been a four-year odyssey to date.
Farmers seeking help have argued that there are few, if any, alternatives for them other than using natural gas to heat their barns and propane to dry their grains.
Kyle Larkin, executive director of Grain Growers of Canada, said there’s a lot of anxiety among farmers about what’s going to happen.
“They thought we were going to approve it in 2023, and here we are in 2024, with still a lot of politicking around the legislation,” he said.
Conservative MP Ben Lobb introduced Bill C-234 in 2022. It would implement an eight-year carbon price exemption for natural gas and propane used to heat farm buildings and dry grain.
An earlier version of the bill that exempted only propane died before passing when the 2021 federal election was called.
Last spring, Lobb’s bill passed the House of Commons with support from all parties except the Liberals, without attracting much attention.
But in the fall, as the Senate began taking it up, liberals announced a different exclusion.
Farmers are anxiously awaiting the verdict on the carbon price reduction bill. #CarbonTax #farmers #cdnpoli
They exempted heating oil from the carbon price for three years after being heavily pressured by premiers and Atlantic voters, who rely most on heating oil.
That move, which Liberals insist was intended to give people time to invest in electric heat pumps, was seen by many as a political decision in response to falling Liberal poll numbers on the East Coast.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said there would be no more exceptions.
But the Conservatives stepped up their efforts to get the exemption for farmers passed too.
The battle became so heated in the Senate that there were accusations of intimidation and harassment on both sides of the debate, including on the Senate floor.
Conservative Senator Don Plett apologized after acknowledging that he lost his temper when he berated some senators for their actions on the bill.
Independent senator Bernadette Clement said police advised her to leave her home temporarily when she received threatening phone calls.
The Senate finally passed the bill in December, but with amendments that limited the exemption to propane for grain drying, and for only three years.
Procedures require the House to decide now whether to accept the Senate amendments. But that process is more complex than it seems.
On Monday, as the House of Commons resumed after the Christmas break, Lobb introduced a motion to reject the amendments and send the bill to the Senate in its original form.
The NDP is voting in favor of that motion, as it did on the bill. The Liberals, with some exceptions, will vote against it, Guilbeault said Wednesday.
“The prime minister and I have been very clear that we do not want new exemptions, and this would create a new exemption,” Guilbeault said in an interview.
The Bloc Québécois is more timid.
Both leader Yves-François Blanchet and deputy Yves Perron suggested on Monday that they might vote against the motion, saying they did not support the conservatives’ tactics in the Senate.
On Wednesday, Blanchet said the party has not yet decided what it will do.
“We are completing our reflection on the matter and together we will know when we will vote,” he said.
That vote could be weeks away, depending on how long the Liberals decide to keep appointing MPs to speak on it. Because it is a private member’s bill, limited time is allotted for that debate.
When a vote is finally taken, if the motion fails, the House will still have to hold another vote to decide what to do with the Senate amendments, and that could start the whole process over again.
If the motion is approved, the bill has to return to the Senate so that it can decide whether to let the will of the House prevail – which is the custom – or reject it.
Lobb said Wednesday that he wants the motion to be voted on quickly, but acknowledged that if it fails the next steps are murky.
“To be honest, it’s a pretty complicated process,” he said.
Larkin said, in the meantime, farmers face bills that can add thousands of dollars in costs per year. The Grain Farmers of Ontario said its farmers could pay $2.7 billion in carbon prices by 2030 if there is no exemption.
Farmers are already exempt from paying the carbon price for gas and diesel used in agricultural vehicles and machinery because they have no alternatives to choose from.
Larkin said the same arguments can be made for barn heating and grain drying.
Some experts said during the debate that farmers can invest in insulation and materials to reduce their heating bills, and that some higher-efficiency grain dryers are available. But all of them still require the use of fossil fuels.
Larkin said that in eight years he hopes there will be technology with alternatives, but it doesn’t exist now.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 31, 2024.
—With a file from Stephanie Taylor.