At least 75 environment department officers have taken on positions with an oil and gas industry funded regulatory body in Alberta. It's expected that the same number, possibly more, will make the move in the spring.
The Edmonton Journal obtained documents that make it clear the environment department has been transferring files dealing with oil industry activities, specifically to do with the Public Lands Act, over to the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) since the middle of November. The transition is all part of the Alberta government’s plan to streamline the environmental review process and comply with industry’s request for “one window” by which to get permits for new projects.
With the inception of the so-called arms length regulatory body, the AER, last spring, responsibility for administering all facets of environmental assessment, including the Water Act, the Public Lands Act and the Environmental Enhancement Act (legislation that deals with spills) is now bankrolled by the very industry it is meant to regulate.
Since the summer of 2012 the regulatory agency is now entirely funded by industry rather than split between industry and government.
Prior to last year, companies looking to secure oilsands development permits had to apply to both the provincial environment department and the former Energy Resource Conservation Board. That procedure is now managed by the AER.
Several people, including the vice-president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees — the union environment officers left to take industry-paid positions — and NDP MLA Rachel Notely, have expressed concerns about the AER's ability to remain objective and ensure environmental standards are kept high.
“This is just another step going down this road — we now have a regulator whose prime mandate in legislation is to promote economic development and it is now also the prime environmental enforcer in the oil patch,” Notley said.
The chair of the board of the new regulator is also the founder of Canadian lobby group the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), Gerry Protti. Next in command is former deputy minister of the environment Jim Ellis, the person behind the decision to keep the Pembina Institute from having standing at hearings concerning oilsands projects. The decision was eventually overturned when an Alberta court, noting a “direct apprehension of bias,” overturned the decision.
The Journal also noted new salaries for environment officers range from 25 to 80 percent higher than salaries with the environment department.
Former Environment Minister Diana McQueen told the Journal that the provincial environment department will still regulate forestry and gravel excavation, as well as develop the regional land use plans used to determine acceptable industry activity and pollution levels.