While we’ve been frothing about the government’s refusal to admit that there’s something fundamentally wrong with a political party accepting a $430,000 campaign donation from a single benefactor, Redford`s government is quietly going about its business—eliminating our right to stop an energy project even if it’s not in the public interest.
If Bill 2, the Responsible Energy Development Act, is passed Albertans will have no say on whether a project should go ahead; all they can do is fuss about the details when it does go ahead.
How did Albertans lose their voice with respect to the most important industrial activity taking place in our province? The same way we lost our voice with respect to the delivery of healthcare—the government “streamlined” the legislation by “gutting” it.
This process took almost 3 years. (The Morton/Stelmach slap-down and ensuing PC leadership race derailed things for a year).
In the spring of 2010 the government declared that Alberta’s regulatory framework for oil and gas development was uncompetitive. In political circles that’s called “framing the question”—there was no evidence to indicate that regulations were indeed making the industry uncompetitive; the government simply declared it so.
Energy Minister Morton (Fred or Ted or whatever his name was) appointed three parliamentary assistants to a task force: Diane McQueen, Energy assistant (now Environment Minister), Cal Dallas, Environment assistant and Evan Berger, Sustainable Development assistant.
Between Apr and Nov 2010 they consulted with “invited” stakeholders, including NGOs, 19 Alberta government departments, 47 First Nations, 3 Treaty Associations and 10 industry associations made up of all of the oil and gas heavy hitters.
Not to be cynical, but I’d wager that the input from “stakeholders” like the Town of Beiseker or Ducks Unlimited didn’t carry nearly as much weight as input from the industry participants who, for some reason, got twice as much air time as the rest of the invitees.
In Oct 2010 the task force unveiled its “preferred” option to the stakeholders. Apparently they were delighted (although given what we now know about Bill 2 I suspect the non-industry stakeholders had no idea what the task force was talking about).
A glossy report was published in Dec 2010. It said that Alberta had an urgent need to “enhance” its regulatory system to keep the oil and gas sector competitive (we’d come full circle).
The report made 6 recommendations. One was the creation of a single Regulator that would pick up the responsibilities of the Energy Resources Conservation Board, Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development.
This recommendation was a Trojan horse. It sounds like “streamlining” but actually results in “gutting” because it eliminates the Energy Resources Conservation Board and the Energy Resource Conservation Act which requires the ERCB to consider whether a project is in the “public interest” in each and every case.
The “public interest” is based on the social, economic and environmental impacts of a project. It can be as narrow as a farmer’s concerns about the impact of an oil well on his crops and livestock or as broad as the cumulative effects of an oil sands upgrader on air and water quality and a community’s ability to provide services and infrastructure
A consideration of the “public interest” weighs these competing interests—if a balance is not achieved the project must be rejected—however the Regulator’s ability to make that decision has vapourized.
If the new Regulator can’t consider the “public interest”, who can? Why the government of course.
The “public interest” is now a matter of policy to be decided behind closed doors by government officials and industry representatives. And if they decide it’s in the “public interest” to exploit Alberta’s natural resources at breakneck speed, so be it. It’s not up for public debate in front of the Regulator.
Bill 2 allows the Minister (we’re not sure who but likely it will be Energy, not Environment) to force the Regulator to make decisions that are consistent with the government’s policies for energy resource development, land management, environmental management and water management.**
And just in case the Regulator is not clear on what those policies are in a specific case, Bill 2 has created a new government-appointed board of directors, complete with CEO, that is responsible for the “general management” of the Regulator’s affairs*** (Welcome to Superboard 2, The Sequel).
The Alberta government has regulated energy resources since 1938. Whether a project is in the public interest or not has been a threshold question for the Regulator for decades. Not one of Alberta’s premiers, including the polar opposites Lougheed and Klein, found it necessary to relieve the Regulator of its duty to consider the public interest, let alone smother the Regulator with direct input from the Minister and his hand-picked board of directors.
Bottom line: the government doesn’t trust the Regulator to interpret the “public interest” appropriately. Perhaps it doesn’t want to take the chance that an arms-length Regulator might act in the best interests of all Albertans, not just those who make hefty contributions to the party in the dying days of an election.
*”The ‘Public Interest’ in Section 3 of Alberta’s Energy Resources Conservation Act: Where Do We Stand and Where Do We Go From Here?” by Cecilia A. Low, Canadian Institute of Resource Law, Sept 2011
***Sections 5 and 6