More than 75 Alberta environmental regulators now paid by energy industry

More than 75 Alberta environmental regulators now paid by energy industry by Sheila Pratt, December 23, 2013
More than 75 environment officers who watched over oil industry activities left the provincial environment department this fall, to take higher paying jobs with the new industry-funded Alberta Energy Regulator. Another 75-plus are expected to leave in the spring. In mid-November, the department also began handing over to the regulator thousands of files on oil industry activity pertaining to the Public Lands Act, according to documents obtained by the Journal. This shift in staffing and the moving of years of files out of a government department to the new arm’s length regulator are key steps in the government’s plan, announced last spring, to create a more streamlined approval process for oil companies that wanted“one window” to get permits for new projects. Previously, companies had to apply to the environment department for some permits and to the old regulator, the now defunct Energy Resources Conservation Board.

To achieve the “one window,” the provincial government handed over to the privately funded regulator responsibility for administering the Water Act, Public Lands Act, and the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act (dealing with spills) as they pertain to energy companies. Former Energy Minister Ken Hughes said last spring that the new regulator will have checks and transparency built in to make sure it enforces environment laws as strongly as occurred under the environment department. The new regulator is funded solely by industry, whereas previously, the regulator was funded jointly by industry and government.

But New Democrat Rachel Notley worries the dismantling of large parts of the environment department will result in weaker protection because the Alberta Energy Regulator’s mandate is to advance oil industry activity. “This is just another step going down this road — we now have a regulator whose prime mandate in legislation is to promote economic development and it is now also the prime environmental enforcer in the oilpatch,” said Notley.

Environment department staff began to move over in September, with the bulk leaving in late November, according to documents. The group includes fish and wildlife officers, forestry officers, biologists, and rangers in various locations. The salaries in some cases are 25 to 80 per cent higher, noted Mike Dempsey, a vice-president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees. Many are union members who must give up AUPE membership to transfer, he added. … But there’s “a lot of talk around the coffee table,” about the perception of potential conflict of interest when employees’ salaries are paid by the industry they are enforcing, and not by taxpayers, he said. “How unbiased can this be, just in perception?” said Dempsey. Enforcement officers “will be in the position” of handing out penalties for poor practices on land-clearing to the companies paying their salaries, said Dempsey, adding that the department urged staff to apply for the new jobs.

The change for environmental enforcement is major and must be closely watched, said Notley. “I think it’s going to come down to the culture of the organization,” and industry has more opportunity to influence the new regulator given that its chairman of the board is Gerry Protti, a founder of the oil industry lobby group, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers [And was VP of Encana for years and advisor to Cenovus that split off from Encana], she said. Under Protti is chief executive, Jim Ellis, a former deputy minister of environment. His record is troubling, said Notley. “It was on Ellis’s watch,” said Notley, that the department circulated an internal briefing note that criticized a respected environment group, the Pembina Institute, for publishing “negative media on the oilsands” and stated that was a reason to deny environmental groups standing at an oilsands hearing. The memo was revealed in a recent trial in which the judge ruled against the department.

Meanwhile, Brad Pickering, a longtime deputy minister, has been appointed to head Alberta’s environmental monitoring agency that will take over the job of measuring pollution in air, water and wildlife when the current joint federal provincial monitoring agency expires next year. That body may also hire away more people from the environment department, Dempsey added. Pickering has been deputy minister of tourism, parks and recreation, solicitor general, sustainable resource development and municipal affairs. Whitecourt MLA Robin Campbell took over the environment post two weeks ago.

A spokesperson for the Alberta Energy Regulator was unavailable for comment. [Emphasis added]

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