New Alberta Legislation further compromises environmental protection, Alberta government creates a new regulator and turns its back on accountability

Legislation further compromises environmental protection, Alberta government creates a new regulator and turns its back on accountability by Rachel Notley, February 14, 2013, Fast Forward Weekly
In an exclusive interview with the Edmonton Journal on Saturday, February 9 at the Economic Summit (“Energy minister lays out Alberta’s new oil strategy,” February 11, 2013, Karen Kleiss), Energy Minister Ken Hughes announced a diversification strategy intended to earn Alberta the “social license” to develop our energy resources. But the minister’s new strategy is a backwards approach to regulation, environmental monitoring and reclamation that ultimately endangers both our industry and our environment.

Last fall, after an all-night sitting, the Alberta PC government passed Bill 2 — The Responsible Energy Development Act (REDA) — a piece of legislation that will fundamentally compromise environmental protection in Alberta. REDA creates a so-called single desk regulator, responsible for both enhancing efficient energy development while also protecting the environment. This sets up conflicting priorities for this new regulator at the outset. But a comparison of environmental objectives contained within the new legislation with those in existing statutes quickly reveals the intention of the Redford government to have the conflict resolved in favour of industry. While the Environment Protection and Enhancement Act (EPEA) enshrines the principles of polluter pay, sustainable development for future generations, and economic development in the interest of the “well-being of society,” the new legislation contains none of these objectives and simply promotes “environmentally responsible development.” REDA does not reference environmental “enhancement,” it does not acknowledge public interest, it does not acknowledge “the need to integrate environmental protection… in the earliest stages of planning,” and it does not make public participation in resource development an explicit priority.

While boosters of REDA will point out that it does not repeal EPEA or dissolve the Environmental Appeals Board (EAB), what they won’t tell you is that neither that legislation nor the EAB will have anything to do with environmental issues surrounding energy development in Alberta now. The Redford government has removed the jurisdiction and authority of the EAB, which currently acts as an appeals mechanism for Albertans who are “directly affected” by energy projects. This is extremely important for Albertans for two reasons. First, appeals of decisions made by the regulator will now be heard by the regulator itself — undermining the independence and integrity of the process. The expected deterioration in the quality of decision-making is coupled with an additional legislative barrier that makes appeals to the courts much more difficult. Second, this legislation limits access for concerned Albertans — including landowners and environmental groups — to hearings about approval of energy projects. In short, these reviews will now take place primarily between the regulator and the company seeking approval for a project.

In fact, the regulator explicitly avoids transparency as REDA establishes the agency not as a crown agent but as a corporation, meaning that there is no obligation to report on its activities to the public. Instead, the only individual who will have legislated access to the research, reports and proceedings of the regulator will be the minister of energy — notably, not the minister of environment. The foundation of a strong regulatory regime is its transparency and independence. Public scrutiny of the regulator’s decisions should be enshrined in the governing legislation in the form of a more transparent funding model and decision-making process, with annual public reports made freely available to the legislature and the general public. At a time of renewed Indigenous activism in response to inadequate consultation with the government of Canada, this legislation exempts this agency from any obligation to consult with Indigenous peoples. In the absence of a long overdue provincial consultation policy, this legislation will leave Indigenous Albertans tremendously vulnerable.

Finally, under REDA, industry will fund a good portion of the work that the new all-in-one regulator conducts. Recently posted ads seeking executive officers for the new regulator ask primarily for people with experience as leaders in the energy industry, but contain no requirement for experience or expertise in environmental protection. As such, it appears that the new agency responsible for environmental protection in Alberta will be funded and managed by industry insiders. Alison Redford campaigned by promising that she would create a Conservative party that is different from that of the past. Unfortunately the only change REDA represents when it comes to protecting our land, air and water for today and future generations is that the Conservatives are now even more subject to the influence of Big Oil. Rachel Notley is the NDP MLA for Edmonton Strathcona and the party’s environment critic. [Emphasis added]

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