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Outgoing National Energy Board chair Gaeton Caron.

Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

The Harper government has appointed Alberta's top bureaucrat as the new chair of the National Energy Board, the regulatory agency that must review pipeline applications critical to the province's aim of accessing new markets for oil sands producers.

Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford announced Friday that Peter Watson, currently deputy minister for the premier's executive committee, will take over from outgoing chair Gaeton Caron in August. He also appointed current board member Lyne Mercier as deputy chair of the regulatory agency.

"The comprehensive experience and knowledge of these individuals will be invaluable during this critical time for our federal energy regulator," Mr. Rickford said in a release.

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Mr. Watson has been at the centre of Alberta's energy and environment policies for years, as deputy minister for environment, deputy minister for energy and since 2011, top bureaucrat for the executive committee and head of the civil service.

The National Energy Board is facing some key applications over the next few years.

The federal government is due to rule on Enbridge Inc.'s Northern Gateway pipeline next week, and the board will likely have to monitor the 209 conditions that a joint review panel recommended Enbridge meet as it prepares for eventual construction.

As well, TransCanada Corp. plans to submit an application for its $12-billion Energy East pipeline, which would carry 1.1-million barrels per day of western crude to eastern refineries and export terminals. TransCanada plans to utilize a portion of the existing cross-country natural gas mainline and convert it to oil use. And Kinder Morgan Inc. will soon seek a permit to dramatically expand its TransMountain pipeline to transport nearly 900,000 barrels per day of crude to Vancouver harbour.

Pembina Institute's managing director Chris Severson-Baker described Mr. Watson as a strong choice for the role.

"I have a lot of respect for Peter Watson," Mr. Severson-Baker said. "He has always seen the value of collaboration and dialogue, of more openness and engaging with stakeholders in a meaningful way."

But Greenpeace oil sands campaigner Mike Hudema said the appointment will not bolster confidence in the independence of the regulator. The board is currently facing legal challenges to its handling of pipeline reviews.

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"Alberta is a very troubled regulatory jurisdiction, especially when it comes to pipelines, so choosing an insider from within its ranks doesn't bode well for the environment or communities across the country," Mr. Hudema said.

Mr. Watson will continue in his role with the Alberta government until the end of July, said Craig Loewen, a spokesman for current Alberta Premier Dave Hancock.

In a release, Mr. Hancock congratulated Mr. Watson on the appointment, saying he had been a "key figure" in the development of province's energy and environmental strategy.

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