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Urban Cowboy: Province delivers on rural natural gas program

Farmers need consistent policies and programs that give them the support and elbow room they need to produce food
Urban Cowboy is Owen Roberts' weekly look at agriculture and food in Guelph.

Living in rural Ontario is attractive in many ways – peacefulness, nature all around, diverse environments and four distinct seasons that change dramatically. I’m sure rural people could add many more.  

But there are some downsides, too. Among them is the cost of energy. The availability and cost of power and heating have been a sore point for ages. The more developed infrastructure of some urban centres has not been implemented in most rural areas, despite rural Ontario’s significance to the economy and to the province’s overall prosperity.

Natural gas has long been held out as a panacea. The Ontario Federation of Agriculture lobbied for it, saying it was key to new industries coming to rural Ontario and sparking development there, not to mention ensuring the competiveness of those already there. Reasonably priced and readily available energy is seen as a vital cog in meeting the premier’s challenge to agriculture, to create more exports and jobs.

Ontario’s minister for agriculture, food and rural affairs, Jeff Leal, gets it. He’s not a farmer, but at the same time, his Peterborough constituency is far from downtown Toronto. He understands the frustrations rural people feel about issues such as this.

With him helping drive the agenda, the province took action earlier this year committing to develop a $200-million Natural Gas Access Loan and a $30-million Natural Gas Economic Development Grant program. The goal was to assist rural communities in switching to cheaper and potentially cleaner fuel.

The path seemed clear. But then last month, national media reports emerged saying this commitment might be withdrawn when the province unveiled its Climate Change Action Plan, in early June.

The reports claimed the province was backing away from natural gas.

That turned out to be untrue. The action plan, introduced last week, recommitted to the earlier announced natural gas programs.

Then it went further. It unveiled additional initiatives based squarely on the development of renewable natural gas, which likely where the media leak went awry (renewable, rather than conventional).

Renewable natural gas comes from methane released from sources like landfills, municipal green bin collection, agricultural residues, livestock manure, food and beverage manufacturing waste, sewage treatment plants and forestry waste.

As part of the Climate Change Action Plan, Ontario will invest about $20 million over four years to pilot the use of renewable natural gas from agricultural materials and food waste digestion. Utilities will explore opportunities to inject hydrogen generated from renewable energy sources into the natural gas stream.

As well, the province says it intends to deliver a cost-shared program to support the production of renewable natural gas, fuelling systems, conversion of transportation fleets to renewable natural gas fuelling, “resulting in quick and economical greenhouse gas pollution reductions.”

Leal is in the middle of helping deliver, and answer for, tough agri-environmental policies put forward by the Wynne government.

On Monday, the prospect of a new agriculture, food and rural affairs minister loomed – as a reward, holiday or whatever for Leal – as a cabinet shake up took place.  

When the new appointments were announced though, Leal remained in the agriculture post. And as far as the natural gas program goes, that’s a good thing. His reappointment offers the sometimes-volatile sector stability, as it comes to understand renewable natural gas and sorts through the government’s environmental agenda.

Farmers need consistent policies and programs that give them the support and elbow room they need to produce food. That makes the agriculture minister’s portfolio exciting, indeed.