BUCALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - The Canadian oil-producing province of Alberta on Monday opened its final legislature session before a provincial election, which polls suggest could see the left-leaning New Democratic Party cede power to the United Conservative Party opposition.
Premier Rachel Notley has not yet set a date for the election, but Alberta law states it must be held between March 1 and May 31.
Voters will be asked to cast their ballots at a time of controversial government intervention in Alberta’s oil market that has drawn support from some major producers and fierce criticism from others.
The NDP stunned many political commentators when it swept to power in Alberta in 2015 in the midst of the global oil price crash, ending 44 years of conservative rule in the province.
Since then Notley’s government has grappled with shrinking capital investment in the province’s energy sector and persistent budget deficits, and is focused on convincing voters an economic recovery is underway.
“We remain on track to balance the budget by 2023, with the best balance sheet in the country. We are doing this without making reckless cuts to the services all Albertans rely on,” the government said in a speech to the legislature delivered by the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Lois Mitchell.
Effective Jan. 1, the Alberta government mandated oil production cuts to help relieve congestion on export pipelines that last year led to a glut of crude building up in storage and the price of Canadian barrels plummeting to record lows.
The move threw a lifeline to oil producers selling their barrels at a loss but has been harshly criticized by integrated companies with refining operations like Suncor Energy and Husky Energy that were benefiting from cheap crude.
On Friday Imperial Oil delayed a C$2.6 billion oil sands project in northern Alberta and laid the blame squarely on the uncertainty generated by government intervention in the market.
The provincial government also plans to lease 4,400 rail cars to transport crude while waiting for long-delayed export pipelines to be built, even though stronger oil prices as a result of curtailments mean rail transportation is no longer economic.
Opposition leader Jason Kenney has promised to rip up those rail contracts if the UCP wins the election, adding to uncertainty in the oil industry.
Notley said her government will continue to manage curtailments and the differential between Canadian and U.S. crude slowly and carefully.
“This is not the long-term solution...Long-term we need more pipelines and more value added in Alberta,” she told a news conference.
Reporting by Nia Williams; Editing by Cynthia Osterman