Auditor general to release results of probe into energy regulator's international work

The results of twin probes into a decision by Alberta's energy watchdog to set up an international, not-for-profit institute are expected Friday.

Public Interest Commission will also release its findings into the creation and operation of ICORE

Jim Ellis was president of the Alberta Energy Regulator and the International Centre of Regulatory Excellence. (CBC)

Following months of investigation, the results of twin probes into a decision by Alberta's energy watchdog to set up an international, not-for-profit institute are to be released Friday.

The provincial Auditor General and Public Interest Commissioner both began looking into the International Centre of Regulatory Excellence (ICORE) late last year after concerns were raised about the relationship between it and the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER).

Their findings will be detailed in a joint news conference in Edmonton.

ICORE was established two years ago as a separate entity that would offer training to regulators around the world.

But its operation has led to questions about the direction and priorities at the AER, which has been a target of criticism for executive travel, how long it takes to approve oil and gas projects and the rising cost of abandoned energy infrastructure, like old oil wells, in Alberta.

The AER, which is funded by a levy charged to the energy sector, oversees the province's massive energy sector and is expected to ensure the safe and environmentally responsible development of the industry.

The Alberta government suspended all ICORE-related activities last year. (International Centre of Regulatory Excellence)

A spokeswoman for the Public Interest Commissioner's office told CBC News this summer that its investigation would be "thorough" and focus on "allegations of gross mismanagement relating to the use of public funds, public assets and AER human resources to establish and support the operation of ICORE."

The Auditor General's office has also confirmed it was looking into the relationship between ICORE and the AER. The job of the auditor general is to examine and report publicly on the government's management of public resources.

When Alberta's then-NDP government learned of the concerns, it suspended all ICORE-related activities. 

A CBC News investigation this summer found a close and complicated relationship between the AER and ICORE, including the involvement of Jim Ellis, who was the president of both organizations.

Several key figures, including Ellis, who were involved with ICORE are no longer associated with either organization.

AER president Jim Ellis, centre, stands with Canada's then-natural resources minister Jim Carr, right, and Mexico's secretary of energy, Pedro Joaquin Coldwell, left, during the launch of ICORE in Mexico City on Feb. 2, 2017. (@AER_news/Twitter)

Documents obtained by CBC News show about a dozen AER employees were assigned away from their regular duties to do work for ICORE. Some of that work included training people in Mexico on ICORE's behalf.

One former employee, who told CBC News he'd spoken with provincial investigators, said he had raised questions internally about the goals of the venture and whether there was really a public benefit.

Earlier this year, the AER sued ICORE — the organization it had created — for $2.6 million, saying it was owed the money for the development and delivery of training materials. 

The AER received a default judgment in its favour in the spring. ICORE never filed a statement of defence. The regulator reported that it collected from ICORE the full amount awarded by the court. 

The results of the investigation come at time when the energy regulator is under scrutiny from the provincial government.

Last month, Energy Minister Sonya Savage announced her department was launching a review of the AER and appointed an interim board of directors to set its future direction.

Savage said at that time that recent months have brought questions about "operational efficiencies, executive oversight and budgetary spending practices" at the regulator.