Members generally approved of the province’s new funding formula for rural municipalities, although McLauchlin said there was room for improvement.
Premier Danielle Smith, who addressed the convention March 22, was especially well received.
“Her speech was very good. Our members were pleasantly surprised,” McLauchlin told Shootin’ the Breeze after the convention wrapped up.
In her speech, Smith said the 2023 provincial budget would deliver over $2 billion in capital investments to rural municipalities over three years. Her government was working hard to cut ambulance wait times and had signed agreements to bring in doctors from outside Alberta, one of whom is now working full time in Blairmore, she said.
In particular, McLauchlin said budgetary adjustments to rural municipalities’ provincial funding streams show a more genuine partnership between RMA members and the province.
If passed, budget 2023 will tweak Edmonton’s funding formula for rural municipalities by fully indexing rural funding in a given year to provincial revenue from three years earlier, whereas the outgoing formula had indexed funding to half of provincial revenue.
“It’s pegging municipal funding to [Alberta’s] prosperity. We’re fully in agreement with the core concept,” McLauchlin said.
In practice, the president said, baseline funding for rural municipalities under the outgoing Municipal Sustainability Initiative was much more robust three years ago than what members can initially expect from the incoming Local Government Fiscal Framework, which takes hold in 2024.
The RMA remains at loggerheads with the province over the province’s recent “downloading” of financial obligations onto municipalities, including policing costs. Members also want to see orphaned oil and gas wells reclaimed at the industry’s expense, whereas the latest version of the province’s Liability Management Incentive Program (formerly RStar) would subtract companies’ reclamation costs from their provincial royalty payments on non-renewable resources.
To that point, McLauchlin said Energy Minister Peter Guthrie assured RMA members at the convention that the province hopes to consult more with rural municipalities.
“On the whole, this was probably one of the better conventions we’ve had in a while. We feel that we’re being heard,” McLauchlin said.
Scott Johnston, press secretary for Alberta Health, later explained that the Blairmore doctor mentioned in Smith’s speech joined the Crowsnest Pass Health Clinic in late January, having signed a three-year service agreement under the province’s Rural Education Supplement and Integrated Doctor Experience program. The new doctor came from British Columbia and now runs a family practice at the health clinic.
A proposed wind farm in Cardston County is facing opposition from a group of residents who say the project threatens the region’s sensitive environment and that their voices are being ignored as the project approaches the regulatory phase.
The project, dubbed Riplinger by Calgary electricity wholesaler TransAlta, has meanwhile drawn the attention of Pincher Creek’s MD, where the company will likely seek to build a transmission line, according to an information package sent last December to county residents within 1.5 kilometres of the project’s tentative boundaries.
The Riplinger farm would generate power from 46 wind turbines on 14,000 acres of private land roughly 30 kilometres southeast of Pincher Creek, the package states. James Mottershead, spokesman for TransAlta, later told Shootin’ the Breeze the project would involve 50 turbines.
Mottershead said TransAlta “introduced” Riplinger to the MD in May 2022, though the company has not filed an application with the Alberta Utilities Commission, which has broad authority to approve utility projects.
Many people who attended TransAlta’s public information session in Cardston County’s village of Hill Spring last Friday were asked to sign a petition circulated by Riplinger’s opponents.
“This is the wrong place for a wind farm,” Bill Merry said as locals steadily filed into the village community centre.
Merry said he was frustrated that TransAlta “has done absolutely the bare minimum in communicating with the project’s stakeholders,” many of whom Merry said live beyond Riplinger’s 1.5-kilometre radius.
“It’s like they’re trying to shove this under the rug,” he added.
Angela Tabak, who lives in the nearby hamlet of Mountain View, said she’d been networking with residents within the project radius, who can intervene if they notify the AUC that they will be directly and adversely affected by Riplinger.
Merry and Tabak said they hoped for a public hearing where TransAlta would be called to show its plans to protect migratory birds and other wildlife species, as well as the wetlands between the Waterton and Belly rivers. Fifty people had signed the petition roughly an hour after doors opened at the community centre.
Speaking to MD councillors at chambers on Feb. 14, Reeve Rick Lemire held up TransAlta’s information package, which outlines a host of federal and provincial bodies that will enter the regulatory process ahead of the MD and Cardston County.
“This is where we fit into the hierarchy of approvals — when everything else is done,” he told council.
The AUC can approve utility projects over the objections of local governments, according to Alberta’s Municipal Government Act.
“The commission takes into account local governments’ positions on projects, both when they support a project and when they oppose a project. It is incredibly helpful to the commission for municipalities to participate in the AUC’s decision-making process,” AUC spokesman Geoff Scotton told the Breeze.
Paul McLauchlin, president of the Rural Municipalities of Alberta, takes a different view.
The AUC “ignores municipal planning authority on a regular basis,” he said earlier this month. “They actually institutionally ignore it.”
McLauchlin said renewable energy will play a critical role in southwestern Alberta’s economic future, adding that many food producers have welcomed projects like Riplinger because developers typically pay well to lease private land. That money spurs investment in ranches and farms, but McLauchlin warned that unchecked development on arable land would jeopardize regional food security.
James Van Leeuwen, who heads a power company in Pincher Creek and sits on the Southwest Alberta Sustainable Community Initiative’s board of directors, said Riplinger would be “unremarkable” if it weren’t tentatively sited near the Waterton Biosphere Reserve, an environmentally sensitive area designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 1979.
“Waterton is an ecological gem,” he said.
Van Leeuwen participated in SASCI’s 2018 regional economic study, which was commissioned by Shell Canada, the Town of Pincher Creek and the Alberta Real Estate Foundation, shortly after Shell announced it would probably shutter its Waterton gas plant (Shell Waterton) by 2030.
Shell Waterton employed about 100 people when SASCI published its findings. Most lived in the town of Pincher Creek, while the plantgenerated about 20 per cent of tax revenue in the surrounding MD.
The study found that Shell Waterton generated 10 per cent of regional GDP, which renewable energy projects can’t match.
Van Leeuwen noted that renewable energy projects might pose similar environmental impacts at the construction phase, especially because concrete and steel bear heavy carbon footprints.
“But that’s not the point,” Van Leeuwen said. “What we’re looking at are the impacts over the lifetime of the infrastructure and for renewable energy.… We’re displacing a high-impact energy source with a low environmental impact energy source.”
Speaking at last Friday’s info session in Hill Spring, James Mottershead said TransAlta hasn’t finalized plans for Riplinger, including the proposed transmission line.
Ryan Desrosiers, an environmental consultant retained by TransAlta, said the line would probably come through the MD. Transmission lines are regulated by the AUC in conjunction with the Alberta Electric System Operator, according to Geoff Scotton.
Desrosiers said TransAlta hopes to host an information session in the MD sometime this spring.
TransAlta hopes to submit its application for Riplinger to the AUC by June, according to Mottershead.