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The Alberta government tabled legislation Wednesday that, if passed, will allow cabinet to set limits on how long the province’s independent energy regulator has to review and make decisions about applications for oil and gas projects.

It’s part of a continuing government evaluation of the Alberta Energy Regulator, which the United Conservatives say is crucial to speeding up project approvals in the province. The party said during the 2019 election the AER was dragging its heels on applications, which was in turn stymieing oil and gas investment.

The province insisted Wednesday the change will have no bearing on the environmental oversight of application reviews. It recently came under fire for a series of ministerial orders in April that curtailed AER reporting requirements for the industry, citing the COVID-19 pandemic.

The energy watchdog went a step further last week, temporarily suspending a swath of environmental requirements for oil and gas sites, including programs that monitor soil, water, wildlife, firebreaks and greenhouse gas emissions. It explained in a written decision it made the changes at the behest of companies that said they couldn’t meet monitoring requirements while complying with public-health orders.

Last week Premier Jason Kenney wouldn’t comment on why the regulator made those changes, saying the AER was an “independent body that makes its own decisions without direction from government."

In a Wednesday press release about the legislative change, the Alberta government said AER delays were “unnecessary” and the result of “needless red tape and ineffective processes.”

“The regulator’s obligation to fully consider social and economic effects and the effects of an activity on the environment and landowners is unchanged,” it said.

Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage said in a statement her government isn’t asking the AER to say yes or no to any specific projects, but rather “ensure delays and uncertainty do not dissuade projects – that will help put Albertans to work – from being brought forward for review.”

Environment Minister Jason Nixon said Bill 7 would “harmonize government and AER policies, allowing the regulator to approve or reject projects more quickly using its already stringent standards.”

The province is currently working on a new suite of policies to ensure industry can cover the cost of cleaning up oil and gas wells and sites in a manageable way. It has also directed the regulator to establish a red-tape-reduction task force to identify unnecessary regulatory steps or duplication in processes.

Already the AER has started using automated review technology called OneStop, which it says will dramatically reduce application processing times by streamlining applications for what it deems low-risk activities, and forwarding high-risk applications to staff for more detailed assessments.

OneStop is currently used for applications for new pipelines, clean-up certification, major integrated projects and applications made under Alberta’s Water Act. The AER says all applications will move to OneStop by 2022.

The AER has faced a series of hurdles over the past few years. Alberta’s UCP government fired the AER board in September and announced a review of the regulator’s mandate, operations and governance.

A few months later, investigations by three government watchdogs concluded the regulator’s former boss 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.

Alberta’s Auditor-General then found that top-level AER executives repeatedly snubbed expense account rules by taking questionable flight upgrades, circumventing cash bonus laws and avoiding taxes on subsidized parking.

The regulator appointed former Saskatchewan deputy minister Laurie Pushor as its new chief executive on April 15.

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