Trouble brews at renewed hearings on Alberta transmission line

By Sheila Pratt, June 10, 2012

EDMONTON – Five years after a shocking spy scandal derailed hearings, Calgary-based Altalink is making a new bid for approval of a $1.4-billion north-south electricity transmission line, a project that has caused major political headaches for the Conservative government.

A battle is already brewing at the Alberta Utilities Commission hearings beginning Monday in Red Deer. Intervener Gavin Fitch has filed a motion for adjournment with the support of a half-dozen other groups, including Enmax, because of a recent decision from the Alberta Court of Appeal.

The court said it “is imperative in the interest of certainty and consistency” that it consider the scope of the definition of “public interest” that the commission must consider in making its decisions.

The case arises from last year’s battle over the Edmonton-area Heartland transmission line, the first new power-line project approved under the new Electric Statutes Amendment Act, also known as Bill 50.

The court’s ruling on the scope of “public interest” could affect the north-south line hearings, Fitch said. (The date for the appeal court hearing has not been set.)

Fitch also said he’s hoping for a quick decision on adjournment so as not to waste time at the hearing.

The utilities commission maintains this week’s hearings into the Western Alberta Transmission Line are to determine the route only, as the need for the line was mandated by the government in 2009 with Bill 50. This is the first of two new north-south lines decreed essential by the provincial government. Hearings for the eastern line will start in July.

About 200 people are lined up to voice their objections to the route.

Altalink says it is “confident “is has found the “least-impact” route for the 350-kilometre, 500-kV DC power line between Wabamun Lake and Calgary after extensive consultation with area residents since 2010.

“We’ve done a lot of work to get the best information, the lowest-impact route,” said spokesman Scott Schreiner.

The line, which would carry 1,000 megawatts of electricity to the south, would be paid for by electricity consumers.

The cost has gone up substantially since the 2007 proposal as Altalink has shifted to more costly direct current technology, Schreiner noted. The DC technology is more efficient and makes it easier to increase capacity on the line, up to 4,000 megawatts if needed, says Law. “It’s more expensive, but there are significant benefits.”

Newly elected Wildrose MLA Joe Anglin, an area landowner and longtime opponent of the proposed line, says he continues to believe the project is an expensive overbuild that will mean higher utility bills for consumers and small business, and electricity for export.

“The battle isn’t over,”says Anglin, who was to attend the hearing Monday in Red Deer.

“The resumption of a hearing is ridiculous,” given there has still not been a public needs assessment, said Anglin.

Also, the biggest demand for new power is in the oilsands, and this western line will not serve that market, he added.

The utilities commission spent months meeting with residents along the line last year, explaining the process and encouraging people to come forward, says spokesman Jim Law.

The commission will take the hearings into several smaller communities to accommodate residents who have signed up to speak, and it is encouraging residents to submit written briefs. It will also provide a live audio stream of proceedings.

“We are very conscious of our reputation and process,” said Law. “We are trying to accommodate as many people as we can. ”

The Stelmach government revamped the approval process after the 2007 spy scandal. It disbanded the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board, which had hired private investigators to spy on landowners opposed to the line.

The government set up the Alberta Utilities Commission to handle electricity projects. Security is now handled by the Solicitor General Department, not the hearing board.

Fitch, who represents residents north of Calgary, said Altalink has presented two alternative routes with some site-specific variations. That’s an improvement from the 2007 hearings, when only one option was offered, he said.

St. Albert lawyer Keith Wilson, who led the legal battle against the Heartland line, told the Journal he was pleased the court of appeal agreed to hear his case. He contends the commission used a narrower definition of public interest than Bill 50 calls for when it refused to consider socio-economic costs.

“The question is, can the commission say no to a proposed transmission line if the cost-benefit analysis is to the negative?” he said.

In his March 27 decision, Justice Ronald Berger wrote: “In my opinion, it is imperative in the interest of certainty and consistency that this court pronounce on the issues. ”

In the face of widespread opposition in rural Alberta last winter, which helped the Wildrose party become the official Opposition, Premier Alison Redford called for a review of the contentious grid expansion plans outlined in Bill 50.

Opponents are angry that Bill 50 removed the requirement for a public needs hearing for major electricity projects.

In February, the Critical Transmission Review Committee endorsed the government’s position that two new north-south lines are needed to meet the growing demand for power.

But it also recommended the province change its legislation to allow a public needs hearing on the last expansion mandated in Bill 50, a new line to Fort McMurray.

The first north-south line would include 1,000 towers and take two years to build. Approval could be granted early this fall.

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