Basque faced heavy workload before confidential gas deal

New Brunswick's public intervener was facing critical and simultaneous deadlines on two separate matters before the Energy and Utilities Board when he negotiated a settlement on petroleum prices with Irving Oil Ltd., records show.

Energy Department opposes private petroleum price deal

Irving Oil Ltd. is seeking an increase in wholesale margins from the Energy and Utilities Board. (CBC)

New Brunswick's public intervener was facing critical and simultaneous deadlines on two separate matters before the Energy and Utilities Board when he negotiated a settlement on petroleum prices with Irving Oil Ltd., records show.

Energy Minister Craig Leonard said he doesn't believe Rene Basque has been overloaded by the provincial government.

"I would assume if he felt it was too much work for him he would indicate that," said Leonard. 

"He is clearly moving forward on these files."

Last week, a scheduled Energy and Utilities Board hearing into an Irving Oil Ltd. application to raise petroleum wholesale margins in New Brunswick - and by extension prices to the public - by about $20 million was put off after Irving and Basque announced they had privately negotiated a settlement of the application. 

Terms have not been publicly disclosed but it is known the settlement includes a set of price increases on gasoline, diesel and heating oil that are lower than what Irving initially applied for and higher than what Basque says he was preparing to argue for at a public hearing.

'Neither appropriate nor possible'

The Energy and Utilities Board said it will rule Monday on whether to accept the settlement or order a full, public hearing. The deal will be made public if the EUB accepts it, but will remain confidential if rejected and a full hearing will commence, as originally scheduled

Basque told CBC News it would be "improper" for him to discuss the settlement prior to the EUB ruling.

But Green Party Leader David Coon said he was shocked by Basque's decision to negotiate with Irving Oil and wants to see the application fully aired in public.

"The public intervener doesn't have that mandate," said Coon. 

"The commission [EUB] should reject it out of hand and say they're going ahead with the public process.  It would undermine the integrity of the EUB dramatically if they accepted this and I can't imagine they will."

On Friday, Leonard's department also expressed concern with the deal, saying it improperly overrides the current price setting formula for regular unleaded gasoline. 

Patrick Ervin, an energy department official, sent a letter to the EUB saying it was "neither appropriate nor possible" for the board to endorse it.

'Laborious process'

Basque did not directly cite his workload as a reason he pursued a settlement with Irving Oil when he appeared in front of the EUB last week, but he hinted it has been a burden.

"We think this is a very laborious process and that is why we had a conversation with the applicant [Irving], to see how can we on a go-forward basis we can address this," said Basque.

Basque's office originally requested a public hearing of Irving's application at a planning conference last summer attended by Basque's assistant Monica Johnson.

"Given the importance to the public as actually contemplated in the act, that the public has a right to receive the minimum cost as much as possible, we believe that a public hearing would be appropriate in this matter," said Johnson.

Basque is not just handling Irving Oil's application. 

He's also the public intervener appointed to handle NB Power's appearance in front of the EUB over how to deal with deferred costs piled up by the Point Lepreau refurbishment. 

In total, the hearings have generated thousands of pages of evidence and scheduling conflicts from both have been obvious. 

In November, each hearing had six filing deadlines on the schedule and to complicate matters Basque hired the same U.S. energy expert, Kurt Strunk, to help him in each case. 

Last week, had the petroleum hearing gone ahead, Strunk would have had to travel to Saint John from New York, testify on Irving Oil's application and simultaneously prepare evidence for the NB Power hearing which Basque is required to file by noon on Monday.

Heavy workload

Public interveners are appointed by the Office of the Attorney General when issues that could affect the public, such as price increases, are being dealt with at the Energy and Utilities Board. 

It's among the most lucrative political appointments made in New Brunswick although the workload can be heavy. 

In his last year as public intervener during the Bernard Lord government, Progressive Conservative lawyer Peter Hyslop billed the province $847,000, mostly to deal with NB Power rate hearings.

Liberal lawyer Daniel Theriault received every public intervener appointment during the Graham government and billed $2.8 million over four and a half years

Initially the Alward government rotated public intervener appointments among three lawyers including Fredericton's Yassin Choukri, Bathurst's Basile Chiasson and Moncton's Basque. 

The three billed $402,000 to represent the public at various hearings during the government's first 18 months. But this year all of the work has gone to Basque, including a hearing to recalculate Enbridge Gas New Brunswick rates, Point Lepreau’s deferral account and Irving Oil's application.