The new head of Alberta’s energy regulator says he is looking forward to an “interesting leadership challenge” as he aims to restore public trust in an agency tarnished by past mismanagement and reeling from job cuts.
Laurie Pushor became the Alberta Energy Regulator’s chief executive on April 15, six months after three provincial watchdogs found the former AER boss, Jim Ellis, set up a pricey side project that diverted resources, money and employee time from the agency while concealing many of the details from the board of directors.
In the wake of those revelations, the provincial government announced AER would lose about 22 per cent of its operating budget. The regulator then underwent a restructuring, including scores of layoffs, as it tried to make itself more effective and efficient.
Two weeks into his new post, Mr. Pushor told The Globe and Mail one of his goals is to restore confidence in the AER, which is battling the fallout of Mr. Ellis’s controversial activities.
“Any organization would be shaken by that and by downsizing, so the first priority is to build good trust and confidence across the organization. That comes, I think, with being genuine and earnest and also being very transparent," he said.
“When you look at an organization that has gone through the turmoil that it has been through recently, you need to come in and build a good strong culture and a team that’s going to hopefully meet Albertans’ expectations of us.”
Mr. Pushor comes to the AER with his own baggage.
A former Saskatchewan public servant, his name is linked to a questionable 2013 land deal by the Global Transportation Hub (GTH), a Crown corporation just west of Regina.
Mr. Pushor was a senior adviser in the Ministry of the Economy under the Saskatchewan Party government at the time. According to investigations by the CBC, he negotiated the land purchase and agreed to pay a Regina developer far more than the parcel was worth. The GTH then sold some of the land for half the purchase price.
Saskatchewan’s Provincial Auditor Judy Ferguson investigated the deal, concluding in June, 2016, that not enough had been done to buy the land in a financially responsible way. The RCMP also investigated. In 2018, they said evidence in the case did not support criminal charges.
Mr. Pushor acknowledged there was “profound public scrutiny” over the deal, but said his role in the matter was “very limited.”
“What I learned really drives a lot of what you hear from me in terms of transparency,” he said.
“If you go through something like that, it would be foolish not to take the lessons you have learned in doing that."
Tim McMillan, president and chief executive of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, knows Mr. Pushor from his time as a minister with the Saskatchewan Party government.
He said the top priority for industry is making sure the regulatory system that governs oil and gas increases its standards, but in the most efficient way.
Asked whether he had concerns over Mr. Pushor’s tie to the Saskatchewan controversy, Mr. McMillan said he sees the new CEO as someone who could be counted on to "do the heavy lifting” on challenging files.
“He’s got a track record of stepping in and ensuring that things are working properly. And where there have been challenges at the AER, I think his track record will serve him well here,” Mr. McMillan said.
Dealing with orphan wells is just one of the pressing files facing Mr. Pushor.
When companies go bankrupt, wells not sold by their trustee end up under the control of the Orphan Well Association, which falls under the umbrella of the regulator. Around 6,500 orphaned sites around Alberta are waiting for the OWA to clean them up and return the land to predrilling condition.
Another 94,000 inactive wells are strewn across Alberta. They are the current focus of a $1-billion well clean-up program funded by the federal government.
Mr. Pushor said he expects the AER to continue to advance area-based well clean-up, and perhaps to strengthen credit assurances around licence liabilities “to ensure that [oil and gas] companies have the wherewithal to address those responsibilities.”
Martin Olszynski, an associate professor of environmental and resources law at the University of Calgary, says Mr. Pushor must also drive significant changes around well-liability rules and regulations.
He would like to see the AER create a commission or an agency to deal with the inactive well problem, with a standardized and transparent structure “so people can see what’s going on.”
“The inactive well inventory has been growing steadily for 20 years. It was growing when prices were great, and it’s growing when prices are bad,” Prof. Olszynski told The Globe.
“It’s not enough to say, ‘Well, things are bad right now,’ so it’s just kicked the can down the road again. That’s happened too many times.”
Mr. Pushor will maintain a residence in Calgary, but his primary home will remain with his family in Saskatchewan. He will commute to Calgary at his own expense.
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