New oil sands projects in Alberta will no longer need government approval under a sweeping set of changes tabled in the province’s legislature on Thursday.
Bill 22 would also scrap the agency responsible for energy efficiency programs, expand the role of the board that handles conflicts between landowners and oil companies and allow non-Albertans to lease grazing land in provincial parks and forest reserves. The government says the changes will reduce red tape and encourage investment.
If the bill passes, the final decision on oil sands approvals will be made by the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), reversing decades of government policy in the province.
Grant Hunter, Alberta’s associate minister of red tape reduction, said Thursday the change would remove politics from the decision-making process and hasten approvals by up to 10 months.
“Time is money, so being able to decrease the time that it takes to get those approvals I think is always a good thing for getting Albertans back to work,” he said.
The AER recently came under fire from three Northern Alberta First Nations for temporarily suspending a swath of soil, water, emissions and wildlife monitoring in the oil patch. An appeal lodged by the First Nations alleged the regulator’s move was made at the urging of industry without any attempt to hear from other parties.
“The long-term consequences of this disregard for the separation between the regulator and the regulated are highly troubling,” the appeal said.
Earlier this year, the Alberta Court of Appeal overturned the regulator’s approval of a $440-million oil sands project that would have encroached on land considered sacred by a First Nation. The court ruled the development infringed on an agreement between the province and the Fort McKay First Nation and therefore the approval violated “the honour of the Crown.”
Mr. Hunter wouldn’t comment on how the change under Bill 22 would affect such cases, but said there would be no change in the regulator’s duty to consult.
Kavi Bal, press secretary to Energy Minister Sonya Savage, added that projects need approval from the Aboriginal Consultation Office based on economic, social and environmental value and outcomes.
Energy Efficiency Alberta (EEA) is also on the chopping block, and is slated to close on Sept. 30.
Alberta was one of the last jurisdictions in North America to establish an energy efficiency body, but Mr. Hunter said “there’s no need to have that agency any more.”
Mr. Hunter said some EEA programs would be rolled into Emissions Reduction Alberta. Others will be cut, but neither he nor officials had specifics or information on resulting job losses at the agency. EEA will continue to honour pre-existing program commitments and collaborate with applicants until it is shuttered by the government.
Another major change under the new legislation is the process by which Alberta landowners seek restitution from oil and gas companies.
Currently, if energy companies cause more than $25,000 worth of damage to a property, the landowner must take the company to court for damages. Anything under $25,000 goes to the Surface Rights Board to sort out. Under Bill 22, the board will now deal with any damage up to $50,000.
The Surface Rights Board saw a $1.7-million bump in funding in the 2020 budget to help it deal with more than 5,000 claims against oil and gas companies that had been languishing for years.
On Thursday, officials had no data on how many more cases will be directed to the board as a result of the change, nor did they know whether the agency would receive more money to help with the influx.
The bill would also allow any Canadian resident – not just Albertans – to participate in sales of public land, obtain grazing leases in provincial parks and grazing permits in forest reserves, and would eliminate Canadian residency requirements for boards of directors.
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