Oil Sands Watch | Pembina Institute


Passage of Bill 46 Perpetuates EUB Shortcomings

Published Dec 5, 2007

By Dan Woynillowicz, Director, Strategy and External Relations, Pembina Institute

By Dan Woynillowicz & Steve Kennett

There is an old French proverb that translates to, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." With the Alberta government's passing of Bill 46, the Utilities Commission Act, this proverb rings true through both the hallways of the legislature and the landscapes of rural Alberta.

Bill 46 will shift the regulation of electrical transmission lines and other utilities from the Energy and Utilities Board (EUB) to a new Alberta Utilities Commission. While a case can be made for this division of responsibilities, the law also contains contentious sections that address, albeit rather vaguely, whether and how Albertans can be involved in energy and utility decision-making.

The bill sparked widespread opposition from a broad spectrum of Albertans at a time when trust in the Energy and Utilities Board (EUB) has reached an all time low after the agency was caught spying on landowners during a power transmission line hearing this summer. In response, the government put forward two dozen amendments in an attempt to quell concerns. But those amendments failed to address stakeholder concerns. In particular, they fear loss of the right to participate in public hearings for new electricity transmission lines and power plants. Further, it is widely anticipated that this will lead to similar restrictions for hearings on oil and gas development.

The government's amendments dealing with public participation effectively revert to the EUB's outdated and insufficient public hearing process. For example, only Albertans who can demonstrate that their rights may be "directly and adversely affected" have the right to a public hearing. This test silences many Albertans with legitimate interests in decisions on utilities and energy projects and lies at the root of widespread dissatisfaction with the EUB and its "public interest" decision-making process. Landowners adjacent to energy developments, individuals with recreational and other interests in land, landowner organizations, environmental groups and even municipal governments have been denied the right to be heard under this test. Far from objecting to all development, everywhere, all the time; these Albertans do object to the status quo: government approval of virtually all development, everywhere, all the time.

In light of Bill 46's shortcoming, groups including the Pembina Institute, Lavesta Area Group, Livingstone Landowner Group and the Pembina Agricultural Protection Association pushed the government to hear directly from Albertans. We advocated that the best venue for this consultation would be to hold hearings before the all-party Resources and Environment standing policy committee. Premier Stelmach created this committee for just this purpose, to allow for a more in-depth look at issues and to gather public input into the legislative process. This recommendation was ignored, and instead of hearing from Albertans the government tried to sell Bill 46 to Albertans through a $26,000 advertising blitz last week in 133 rural newspapers.

Decisions about utilities and energy development are absolutely central to the environmental, social and economic well being of Alberta as a whole; and have profound implications for the lives of individual Albertans. Rather than assure the public that the public interest is being looked after, the passage of Bill 46 will continue to limit public involvement in energy decision-making in Alberta.

Premier Ed Stelmach was adamant that Bill 46 becomes law during this session of the Legislature so that it can come into effect on January 1, 2008. He accomplished this in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, 3:30 a.m. to be exact, when Bill 46 was officially passed. To do so required using closure to limit debate on the bill and bring it to a vote, not once but three times: to end second reading, to limit the clause by clause review of the bill, and finally to pass the bill through third reading. Whereas former Premier Ralph Klein used closure 38 times over 14 years, Premier Stelmach used it three times in one week; and all on a single bill.

There is a sad irony that by invoking closure and stifling democratic debate, a law was passed that many Albertans - including landowners and environmental groups - fear will limit their democratic rights. Some might even go so far as to suggest that it represents a double dose of diminished democracy.

Dan Woynillowicz and Steve Kennett are Senior Policy Analysts with the Pembina Institute.