New Alberta energy regulator will weaken environmental protection and vastly diminishes citizen and landowner rights

New energy regulator will weaken environmental protection, say critics by Sheila Pratt, March 17, 2013, Edmonton Journal
Some critics are worried the Alberta government’s new regulatory body for oil, gas and coal could result in weaker, less transparent application of environmental protection laws. Energy Minister Ken Hughes is trying to soothe those concerns, saying a new government branch, the Policy Management Office, will monitor the Alberta Energy Regulator to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Hughes said the government has built in checks to ensure the new regulator applies the laws evenly when it takes over the job of issuing water permits and other environmental permits — a job currently done by Environment and Sustainable Resource Development. Both the energy minister and the Policy Management Office can give directions to the regulator if necessary, Hughes said, adding there will be regular discussions between the parties, though the regulator operates at arm’s length from government.

MLA Rachel Notley, the New Democrat’s environment critic, is worried Environment’s ability to do its job may be severely curtailed, especially when it comes to ensuring water quality, when it loses jurisdiction over energy sector permits. Under the old system, Environment issued permits under three provincial laws, the Water Act, the Public Lands Act, and the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, for all industries. Under the new system, energy sector permits are removed from Environment — in effect, putting outside government the job of administering three key environmental laws for one major sector of the economy, Notley said. This move may “decimate” the ministry’s ability to protect the environment, she said. She wondered if Environment will be hamstrung, asking how the department can develop coherent water policy when a major sector of the economy is outside its jurisdiction. “I think the future of the ministry is in great jeopardy and their ability to enforce laws in other areas is very compromised if the new act takes away all the decisions relating to oil, gas and coal development.”

Under Bill 2, the Responsible Energy Development Act, the new regulator starts in June. For oil companies, the change is welcome, as it means there’s one window for all permits under those laws, said Greg Stringham of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, or CAPP. “At the end of the day it will be better to deal with one body, rather than three.” But more importantly, Environment can concentrate on policy work, while the regulator administers the laws and permits, which makes for a clearer division of labour, Stringham said. Cindy Chiasson from the Environmental Law Centre said using one regulator to issue all permits isn’t necessarily bad for the administration of environmental laws. But the new body will need a lot of expertise and new mechanisms so the public can monitor its work to be sure it is being as tough on the energy industry as it should be, she said. “For the new ERCB (Energy Resources Conservation Board) to make good environmental decisions, it needs the expertise,” Chiasson said. “The next question — will the energy industry get a break on environmental permits because it has its own regulator? You need a mechanism to make sure the new regulator is not going easy on the energy industry ”

The Environment Department declined to say if any of its experts are moving over to the new regulator. They are free to apply for those jobs when they are posted, spokeswoman Nikki Booth said. But there will still be plenty of work for the department in devising land-use plans for each watershed in the province. The Lower Athabasca Land Use Plan in the northeast is still being worked on. Wade Clark is the boss of the of the new 12-person Policy Management Office. He’s confident the energy industry won’t be getting any breaks when it comes to applying environmental laws. “There are good checks and balances in the system.” For instance, if the regulator wants to make technical changes to water permits for oil companies only, it has to give the government 120 days notice, he said. “So the government has time to decide whether it needs to step in and develop a new policy, or adopt the new one proposed by the new regulator.” Clark’s office has a second job — to take the lead in developing new environmental policy, which means lots of public engagement. In the old world, the government often dragged its feet on environmental policy for the fast-moving energy industry, so the ERCB stepped into the gap. For example, it came up with new regulations on tailings ponds when there was no sign the Environment Department would do so.

“Now those policy discussions will go directly to the new policy management office, and that gives everyone the right forum to have a policy discussion,” Energy Minister Hughes said. Clark’s office resides in the Energy Department, but Environment is closely involved, he said. “We’ll make sure the heavy lifting in making policy stays with AESRD (Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development) and other departments.” CAPP is pleased with that new division of labour, which it says provides “much needed clarity.’’ By default, public hearings on specific projects became the only forum to discuss issues such as air pollution and habitat destruction — not the appropriate place. “Now we’ll have a clear distinction — it’s the government that sets the policy and that’s separate from the regulator,” Stringham said. When necessary, “the regulator will ask government for policy — and it should be more efficient.

Chris Severson Baker of the Pembina Institute, an environmental research group, said environmentalists like the idea of a better forum to raise their issues, but will closely watch the Policy Management Office to see if it measures up. “If there is intent for government to be more proactive on policy, that’s good,” he said. But so far, no rules are set about who can initiate a policy discussion or how environmental groups can bring ideas forward to the new office, he said. “People are optimistic about this, with reservations. They want to know how their issue will be raised.” Notley, meanwhile, said she’s skeptical about the government’s message that there will be plenty of consultation on new policy. “The message is, it is more important for Albertans to be at the front end on policy development,” she said. But in the approval process, there is less room for public hearings on contentious projects and tighter restrictions who can appear at public hearings, she said. The new regulator is not obliged to hold a hearing when requested and that decision is harder to appeal, Notley added.

If a hearing is denied, a person can appeal to officials within the board, and any legal challenge must go to the Alberta Court of Appeal, not the lower Court of Queen’s Bench. The appeal court only has the power to send the decision back to the regulator for reconsideration, so “it sends up a never-ending loop,” she said. “This is exactly the opposite direction it should go.”

St. Albert lawyer Keith Wilson said rural landowners are worried about the lack of an outside appeal process and the narrower definition of intervener status. Only those who are negatively and adversely affected are eligible for a hearing, narrower wording than in the old act, said Chiasson of the Environmental Law Centre. “That’s too narrow, I’d put in ‘demonstrable and genuine interest.’ ” Hughes said he has opened the system so people can “self-identify” as someone with an interest. But the board does not have to accept them as interveners. Unlike the ERCB, the new regulatory agency will have a small board of governors and those governors, or commissioners, will not sit on the panels for public hearings. The minister of energy will appoint the board. Various experts will be hired for the public hearing panels, depending on the expertise needed, such as land issues or pipelines, Hughes said. [Emphasis added]

Province talks water with residents by Jordan Thompson, March 17, 2013, Fort McMurray Today
“The reason we’re here today is to talk to the general public about water issues, trying to get their feedback not only on some of the priorities that this government has identified to deal with water issues, but some potential areas of action this government may want to consider,” said Andy Ridge, director of water policy with the department of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development. “And the reason we want to engage with citizens is these are things that will have an impact on how we think about water, some of the decisions in the future around water that could impact citizens, industry, etc. So we wanted to take the time to go across the province and today here in Fort McMurray, to engage with citizens so that they’re providing input and guidance to some of these important issues.”

“What we learned as part of the Water For Life strategy discussions over 10 years ago, was that every Albertan is passionate about water, they have a story about water, or an experience with water,” Ridge said. “So some of the issues that we are talking about, it’s not just an agriculture issue, it’s not just an oilsands issue, water affects our lives in every way we can think about, and so, at the end of the day, we need to make sure citizens have an awareness and appreciation of the wonderful water resources we have in the province, but also an appreciation of how some of the decisions we make in our day to day lives have an impact on water. So, again, it’s looking to the future, making sure that the decisions we make today will make sure the quality of live we enjoy today, we can continue to enjoy over the next coming decades.”

Albertans provide input for new regulator by Patricia Riley, March 5, 2013, Mountain View Gazette
Alberta government officials visited Sundre on Feb. 26 to gather input from area residents regarding the new Alberta Energy Regulator. “The Alberta Energy Regulator will replace the ERCB (Energy Resources Conservation Board),” Carrie Rosa, from the communications department for Alberta Energy, said at the meeting. “It will regulate all energy-related activity in the province for oil, gas, oilsands and coal.”

Paddy Munro, Mountain View County Div. 6 councillor, attended the Sundre meeting. He said he is “absolutely” against the new regulator. “This new bill strips landowners of important rights regarding energy projects on our lands,” Munro told the Gazette. The regulator will repeal the rights that landowners have under the Energy Resources Conservation Act, including notice of energy projects and the right to review documents relating to the proposed energy projects, he said. It also repeals the right to object to the energy project, trigger a hearing, the right to cross-examine the energy company or regulator and the right to present one’s case, he added. The public interest mandate of the ERCB is being repealed, which is also a concern, he said.

“It seems to me like the new bill will fast-track energy development,” he said. “The important thing is to get it right, to properly deal with concerns of adjacent landowners and give them true options if they don’t support the project. “Now you’re able to file a letter of concern, it just doesn’t seem enough.” … Wade Clark, executive director for policy and regulatory alignment with Alberta Energy, said it is important to ensure the interest of Albertans is “protected” in the process. “These sessions are primarily for us to listen to Albertans in terms of what their expectations are for the new regulator’s processes,” Clark said at the Sundre meeting. Once the regulations are drafted, they will then go through the approval process through cabinet, he said. “Our intention is….” [Emphasis added]

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