Alberta energy regulator to face new timelines set by government

The provincial government wants to give itself the power to set deadlines so the Alberta Energy Regulator reviews and approves energy projects within a set amount of time. 

If passed, Bill 7 will give cabinet the power to set deadlines for project approvals

A sign for the Alberta Energy Regulator is visible outside a building. There is green foliage visible in the background.
Bill 7 is part of the United Conservative government's overall push to revamp the AER, an arms-length regulator plagued by spending scandals and mismanagement. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

The provincial government wants to give itself the power to set deadlines to ensure the Alberta Energy Regulator reviews and approves oil and gas projects within a set amount of time. 

Bill 7, the Responsible Energy Development Amendment Act, was introduced in the Alberta legislature by Transportation Minister Ric McIver on Wednesday.

McIver was acting for an absent Energy Minister Sonya Savage.

"It is vital for our government to restore predictability to the regulatory process without sacrificing rigour," McIver told the legislature, adding the government has heard concerns about the current process. 

"These unnecessary delays leave industry searching for answers. It discourages investment in the province, something we can ill-afford at a time like this."

A week, a month or years

Maximum timelines are not prescribed in the proposed legislation. If the bill is passed, they would be set by regulations approved by cabinet. 

In an interview with The Canadian Press prior to the legislation being tabled, Savage said a review of the system showed that, at times, it takes too long for the AER to make decisions on whether or not to allow a project to proceed.

The review found that while some projects were approved in as little as five days or less, others took months or years.

"We heard continuously that the AER process is onerous, it's unpredictable and uncertain on the timelines," Savage said. "That's where this legislation kicks in, is to allow cabinet to put timelines in place."

Calgary-McCall MLA Irfan Sabir is the NDP Official Opposition's energy critic. While the NDP caucus supports a streamlined process, Sabir said the criteria cabinet will use to set timelines isn't clear. 

"We don't know how they will set those timelines, what role AER will play, what kind of consultations will be done, what kind of assessments will be undertaken," he said. 

If the government wants to improve timelines, Sabir said the AER must do assessments properly so projects aren't delayed by court challenges over insufficient consultation. 

The new process is not an order to approve every application but to conduct the approval process efficiently, while taking environmental concerns and public safety into account, said Environment Minister Jason Nixon.

"We're not pushing for automatic approvals, but we want the review process to take place in a competitive fashion, to make our province competitive when it comes to this issue," said Nixon.

Nixon said the review, started last fall involving 300 stakeholders, found that the delays were caused mainly by problems with logistics and that the AER was not taking advantage of online processes to speed up decisions.

Nixon said that has been improved recently. The AER, for example, is now testing OneStop, an automated web-based system to process routine applications.

Nixon said another theme was a lack of clear policy direction, forcing the regulator to go back and forth with government to clarify the rules.

"We did see a bunch of spots where the regulator ended up almost in a frozen state because they had not heard from the government on policy issues," said Nixon.

Bill 7 is part of the United Conservative government's overall push to revamp the AER, an arms-length regulator plagued by spending scandals and mismanagement.

Since taking office a year ago, the government launched a review, hired a new chief executive officer, appointed a new board of directors cut spending and laid-off hundreds of employees. 

With files from Janet French and The Canadian Press


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