Utilities commission regains power under new bill

By Darcy Henton, Calgary Herald October 24, 2012

EDMONTON — Energy Minister Ken Hughes has introduced legislation to repeal controversial Bill 50, but he says the law that empowered cabinet to approve $8-billion worth of critical transmission projects without a public hearing was necessary at the time.

He said Tuesday it was not a mistake to pass the Electric Statutes Amendment Act to seize that power from the Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC) in 2009. “Different times; different needs,” he told reporters at the legislature.

“Now it’s important that we send this responsibility back to the Utilities Commission. The decision to pass that bill to move forward with that critical infrastructure was needed at the time it was done by the government.”

The law, which sparked outrage across the province, enabled cabinet to give the green light to five transmission projects, including two high voltage lines connecting Edmonton and Calgary — worth more than $3 billion — as well as a $400-million line into the industrial heartland northeast of Edmonton.

On Tuesday, critics blasted the Stelmach government’s decision to enact Bill 50 in the first place and also called for the immediate release of a review of Alberta’s electricity retail market that was commissioned to address price volatility.

Hughes said he doesn’t plan to release the report until he has decided how to respond to its 41 recommendations.

“I think it helps the discussion because then people can either focus on certain recommendations that they think there should be adjustments to or not, and we see quite clearly what we’re going to implement right off the bat.”

He said the Conservative government won’t be ready to implement any recommendations before the end of the year and that may not be in time to affect this winter’s electricity prices.

But NDP Leader Brian Mason said Hughes doesn’t want to release the report while the legislature is in session because he doesn’t want the recommendations debated.

“We need to be having that discussion. Other people need to be involved, including the citizens of Alberta, who pay electricity bills every month to keep their lights on,” he said.

“But the minister is withholding the information from the public so that he can make every single decision on every single recommendation in the report, and once that report is released, it will be too late.”

Mason said repealing Bill 50 now that construction has already begun on the transmission lines still leaves Albertans stuck with 100 per cent of the costs of lines that may not be necessary.

Wildrose energy critic Joe Anglin said Bill 50 was wrong and the province should admit it. He said there’s still time to send the projects to the AUC for expert assessment.

“We have time to correct this and save Albertans a tremendous amount of money,” he said.

Keith Wilson, a lawyer who represents landowners in the heartland, said Bill 50 was a mistake because it enabled the lines to go ahead without a public cost-benefit analysis.

He said industry experts have concluded the Bill 50 lines are a massive overbuild that will result in significant increases in monthly power bills and undermine the competitiveness of Alberta’s economy.

Wilson said landowners have opposed the lines because they don’t believe they are in the public interest.

“If their land is to be imposed upon, they want it to be for a good reason and one that is in the public interest,” he added.

Wilson has asked the Alberta Court of Appeal to order new hearings into the Heartland line so the AUC can decide whether Bill 50 lines are really in the public interest. A decision is expected in two to four weeks.