Tory plan for single energy regulator sparks debate among landowners, politicians

By Tamara Gignac, Calgary Herald October 26, 2012

Landowners and politicians are divided on the merits of a single regulator to oversee all future oil, gas, oilsands and coal development in the province.

The Redford government is proposing new legislation to bolster oversight of the province’s energy industry.

Companies currently must file applications to the Alberta government as well as to the arms-length Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB).

But under Bill 2, also known as the Responsible Energy Development Act, a single provincial body would be responsible for energy resource developments.

The Tories say the legislation will give Alberta the regulatory teeth it needs to issue higher fines for individuals and companies who break the law.

The new rules are also good for property owners, who for the first time can register private surface agreements, according to the province.

“That’s a big one,” said Mike Deising, a spokesman for Alberta Energy.

“If a landowner and the industry have a deal — but industry doesn’t live up to their end of the bargain — the landowner can take it to the regulator,” he said.

“Previously, they could have gone to court but there wouldn’t have been regulatory enforcement.”

Disputes sometimes arise over the placement of pipelines or gas wells, with landowners and conservation groups pitted against large petroleum producers.

One such case involves Rosebud resident Jessica Ernst, one of the province’s most outspoken critics of fracking, a process where water, chemicals and sand are blasted deep underground to break up coal formations and release natural gas.

Ernst alleges that fracking has contaminated the hamlet’s water supply. She’s launched a lawsuit against Encana, the province and the ERCB, and remains skeptical that a new single regulator will do much to protect landowners

“It’s a way to deregulate the industry,” she said. “It means less red tape for the energy companies. They used to have to go to the different agencies to get all their permits and there were different eyes reviewing each application. Now it’s just going to the ERCB.”

The new regulatory regime involves combining the 75-year-old ERCB with the regulatory functions of Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development.

That’s a problem, believes NDP critic Rachel Notley.

Energy Minister Ken Hughes said the point is to provide a single window for industry, thus reducing duplication.

But Notley argues the move hurts landowners because it creates a conflict of interest for the regulatory body charged with environmental protection.

“One of the mechanisms that helped landowners was being able to go the Ministry of Environment. Now that is all moved into this new agency, which is essentially ‘ERCB plus,’” she said.

Notley fears that under the new system, projects will be pushed through too quickly without proper consideration given to potential effects on Alberta’s land and water supply.

Jason Hale, Wildrose MLA for Strathmore-Brooks, said his party plans to take a close look at the new legislation and may propose some amendments, if necessary.

“The PC government seems to have lost the importance of individual property rights,” Hale said. “We’re going to talk to some of the stakeholders and the land-rights groups to see if they have any concerns with this bill.”

Alberta has seen its share of conflict between energy companies and communities where the industry builds pipelines and wells.

The province is even considering a new urban policy for oil and gas projects after the Calgary neighbourhoods of Royal Oak and Rocky Ridge raised concerns about a sweet oil well in their community.

Some landowners, however, agree with the notion of a single energy regulator.

Barbara Gardener, who owns a ranch south of Longview, was pleased earlier this year when Suncor Energy withdrew a contentious plan to drill 11 sour gas wells and build a pipeline on land in Kananaskis County.

But she said in many cases, there needs to be compromise. “We’d like to keep everything pristine and nice but you have to have balance,” she said. “Everybody gets mad and up in arms but it comes down to economics. If we want to have nice roads, schools and hospitals we all have to work together.”

—With files from the Canadian Press

[email protected]


© Copyright (c) The Calgary Herald