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Alberta

Alberta NDP Opposition says Albertans need help to pay utility bills

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From the Alberta NDP 

NDP CALLS FOR UTILITY BILL RELIEF IN RESPONSE TO SHOCKING BILLS DURING PANDEMIC, ECONOMIC DOWNTURN

Alberta’s NDP is calling for major relief for consumers following a sudden surge in constituents coming forward with massive cost increases on their monthly electricity and overall utility bills.

The Office of the Utilities Consumer Advocate (UCA) cites a number of contributing factors to the upswing in prices in Alberta, including increased consumption while people are staying home to observe COVID-19 public health orders, increased use during the winter, increased costs for natural gas and electricity and increased transmission and distribution charges.

“There’s a compounding effect here and it’s hammering household budgets,” said NDP Leader Rachel Notley. “Many Albertans have to use more natural gas and electricity if they work from home or spend more time at home to help protect their communities from the spread of COVID. Couple that with soaring prices for natural gas and electricity and you’re seeing massive bills and no relief for families.”

In 2016, the NDP Government capped electricity prices under the Regulated Rate Option at 6.8 cents per kilowatt hour; however, Jason Kenney and the UCP removed it in late 2019. According to the UCA, average electricity prices have exceeded that previous cap in January, February and March of this year — the highest price was reported in February by EPCOR, which charged an average of 8.95 cents per kilowatt hour.

As well, natural gas prices are at highs not seen in seven years, with prices in March exceeding four cents per gigajoule — the last time prices were this high was in June 2014. For context, rates were just 1.6 cents per gigajoule in March 2020.

In response, the NDP is calling for the following four actions to be taken by the UCP immediately:

  • Provide direct consumer relief to two-thirds of Albertans (those earning up to $55,000 annually as an individual or $102,500 per couple). Model the relief program after the COVID-19 Energy Assistance Program offered by the Government of Ontario, which provided customers with up to $750 in support both their electricity and natural gas bills. Consumers can apply for relief on both bills separately, providing total potential relief of $1,500.
  • Reinstate the Regulated Rate Option cap for electricity at 6.8 cents per kilowatt hour.
  • Reinstate the Utility Payment Deferral Program, which allowed consumers and businesses to defer payment of bills but which ended last June.
  • Ban all utility shutoffs for Alberta homes until the pandemic ends and public health orders are lifted.

Notley noted that Albertans are already struggling greatly during the pandemic and economic downturn, with tens of thousands of jobs lost in the province and currently the second-highest unemployment rate in Canada. In a recent Angus Reid poll, the percentage of Canadians reporting that they are worse off than they were a year ago is highest in Alberta.

“We need action to help Albertans in this time of great need,” Notley said. “People doing the right thing and staying closer to home during this pandemic should not be penalized for doing so. We need real consumer relief from these glaring utility bills and we need it to last for the duration of the pandemic, no matter when it might end.”

Thousands of Albertans have written or come forward to the NDP Caucus with complaints and concerns about their utility bills. Calgary father Hassan Ali Nakokara lost his job early in the pandemic and has been struggling to pay bills since. In February, his monthly utility bill jumped to $850 from $450 the month prior.

“It’s impossible for me to pay that,” Nakukara said. “I’m out of work, I’m trying to support my kids while I look for work. The last thing I can do is hand over hundreds to heat and power my home. I need help and I’m desperately hoping the government will step up to help me and so many others.”

Fellow Calgarian Carolyn Nystrom said she and her husband have lived in their home since 2012 and paid between $250-300 for utilities per month. Her bill has been increasing rapidly since December – for March, the total reached $576. Nystrom said it appears the greatest increases are being seen on electricity and transmission charges.

“We are in a pandemic,” Nystrom said. “People have lost their jobs. People have spent their savings. My husband and I have both been fortunate to keep our jobs through all of this.  Even though we still get a paycheque, a bill doubling in three months is absolutely unaffordable … if companies like Enmax and Direct Energy can charge whatever they want per kilowatt hour or gigajoule, what can stop them?  And what can we do?  We live in Canada.  Being able to turn lights on is not exactly an option here.  We have to pay, and companies without regulations and caps know that.”

Correspondence and calls regarding spiking utility bills have come in from all over the province.

Airdrie mother Lisa Gilling said her most recent electricity bill shows the price being charged per kilowatt hour jumped from 5 cents to 19 cents per kilowatt hour and her bill for electricity alone totaled over $400.

“A three hundred per cent increase for a product or service is drastic but when it is an essential service, like electricity, it can be catastrophic, especially for a single-income family,” Gilling said. “Do you cut back on groceries in order to have lights and hot water?”

Mickey Moore, a senior living alone in Vermillion said his bill has risen by hundreds of dollars since the beginning of the year to more than $550 in March.

“Without some kind of control on essential service, with no real competition, how can we seniors expect to keep up on our fixed incomes?” Moore said. “Does the government plan to index seniors’ incomes to the rising utility costs? When we had regulated utility oversight there was some control and fairness applied.”

After 15 years as a TV reporter with Global and CBC and as news director of RDTV in Red Deer, Duane set out on his own 2008 as a visual storyteller. During this period, he became fascinated with a burgeoning online world and how it could better serve local communities. This fascination led to Todayville, launched in 2016.

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Alberta

Alberta gets court injunction against planned anti-COVID-19 health order protests

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EDMONTON — The Alberta government says it has taken legal action to stop any planned protests of COVID-19 public health orders, including one at a central Alberta cafe that was closed for not following the rules.

On Wednesday, Alberta Health Services closed the Whistle Stop Cafe in the hamlet of Mirror until its owner can demonstrate the ability to comply with health restrictions.

The agency says it had received more than 400 complaints against the business since January.

Alberta Health Services says it has been granted a pre-emptive court injunction against a planned protest by the cafe owner and supporters.

It says it also has received a court order against all other organizers of advertised illegal gatherings and rallies breaching COVID-19 public health orders.

There is an ad promoting a rally this weekend at the cafe in Mirror called “The Save Alberta Campout Protest.”

The ad says the event is a response to “harmful restrictions” imposed by Premier Jason Kenney, Health Minister Tyler Shandro, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, and “the United Conservative Party caucus’ ongoing attack on the rights and freedoms of the people of Alberta.”

Alberta Health Services says the court order restrains the cafe owner and others from organizing, promoting and attending the event.

“AHS has taken this step due to the ongoing risk to Albertans created by those breaching COVID-19 public health restrictions and advertising social gatherings which, if held, breach current and active CMOH Orders and pose a risk to public health,” the agency said in a release Thursday.

“AHS strongly condemns the intentional disobeying of COVID-19 public health restrictions,”

The agency says with COVID-19 cases increasing in the province, including the more easily transmitted and potentially more severe variants, there is urgent need to minimize spread to protect all Albertans.

Last weekend, hundreds of people gathered near Bowden, also in central Alberta, for a pre-advertised maskless “No More Lockdowns” protest rodeo.

Days later, the premier announced stronger restrictions and doubled fines for scofflaws

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 6, 2021

The Canadian Press

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Alberta

Alberta's top doctor says 'very likely' COVID-19 vaccine interval to be shortened

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EDMONTON — Alberta’s top doctor says it’s very likely that second doses of COVID-19 vaccines will be offered within less than four months of the first as supplies ramp up. 

The province authorized a 16-week interval in order to get as many people protected with their first shots as possible while vaccine shipments remained uncertain. For Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, the drug makers say the gaps between doses should be three weeks and one month, respectively. 

“I want to be clear that that four-month interval was always a maximum,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Thursday. 

“We were never planning to require a wait of four months. It was really about we would not have anyone go beyond four months, but if we can offer it sooner, we will.”

People on immunosuppressive drugs, like chemotherapy, are already being offered their second shots in a shortened time frame, Hinshaw said. 

She noted that for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, there is evidence that a 12-week wait between doses is more effective than a shorter interval. 

As of Monday, all Albertans born in 2009 and earlier will be able to book their first shot.

On Thursday, some 100,000 people born in 1991 and earlier booked their first vaccine appointments. After that, the province will be able to start offering followup doses, Hinshaw said. 

So far, 1.73 million doses of vaccine have been given in Alberta.

Alberta recorded 2,211 new COVID-19 cases and no new deaths on Thursday. There were 654 people in hospital, including 146 in intensive care.

More than 11 per cent of tests came back positive.

 Hinshaw also reiterated that the province is no longer testing every positive COVID-19 swab for variants. Instead, labs are testing a representative sample. 

“This frees up crucial lab capacity to ensure that people get their COVID-19 test results back as soon as possible, which is the most important thing we can do with our lab capacity to minimize further transmission.” 

She added that anyone with a positive test should assume they have contracted a variant, as variants are now dominant in the province.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 6, 2021. 

— By Lauren Krugel in Calgary.

The Canadian Press

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