EDMONTON — Alberta is introducing legislation to allow the government to set maximum time limits on approvals for energy projects.
Energy Minister Sonya Savage said that a review of the system has shown that at times it takes too long for Alberta’s energy regulator to make decisions on whether to allow an oil and gas project to proceed.
The review found that while some projects were approved in as little as five days or less, others took months or years.
“We heard continuously that the AER process is onerous, it’s unpredictable and uncertain on the timelines,” Savage said in an interview prior to the legislation being tabled in the house Wednesday.
“That’s where this legislation kicks in, is to allow cabinet to put timelines in place.”
Savage said they are giving the energy regulator time to improve its processes for approvals, but if not, the bill would give the government the authority to impose deadlines.
The bill fulfills an election promise from Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party in the spring 2019 campaign.
The UCP argues Alberta’s approval rates have been twice as long as those in Saskatchewan and four times longer than other competing jurisdictions, such as Texas.
Environment Minister Jason Nixon said the approvals must still take into account environmental concerns and public safety.
“We’re not pushing for automatic approvals, but we want the review process to take place in a competitive fashion, to make our province competitive when it comes to this issue,” said Nixon.
“We’re not instructing that department of the AER not to say no, but we expect the review process to be efficient.”
The bill does not propose imposing timelines on a case by case basis.
Nixon said the review, started last fall involving 300 stakeholders, found that the delays were caused mainly by problems with logistics and that the AER was not taking advantage of online processes to speed up decisions.
Nixon said that has been improved recently. The AER, for example, is now testing OneStop, an automated web-based system to process routine applications.
Nixon said another theme was a lack of clear policy direction, forcing the regulator to go back and forth with government to clarify the rules.
“We did see a bunch of spots where the regulator ended up almost in a frozen state because they had not heard from the government on policy issues,” said Nixon.
NDP energy critic Irfan Sabir said the Opposition supports clear timelines and took steps toward it while in government.
“While in government, we improved the approval process significantly by streamlining and digitizing it, and by investing in Indigenous consultation capacity to ensure that Indigenous People were included in resource development decisions,” said Sabir in a statement.
“If the UCP wants to improve approval times, consultations and assessments have to be done right. They must have meaningful support for consultation capacity in place to avoid future court challenges, prevent delays in getting our resources to market and secure jobs for Albertans.”
Nikki Way, a senior analyst at the Pembina Institute, a climate and energy think tank, added that “continued discussion about reducing approval timelines is beside the point — a credible regulator needs to manage more than just pushing out fast approvals.”
“Today’s announcement is not addressing the real issue — that is, to ensure the AER is equipped to do its job properly — and could result in further eroding the investor and public confidence needed in this emerging era where investors are demanding higher (environmental, social and governance) performance.”
The bill is part of a larger overhaul of the energy regulator undertaken by Kenney’s government.
It has previously replaced the board of directors, and a new CEO has been appointed.
Laurie Pushor, the former deputy minister of the Saskatchewan ministry of Energy and Resources, was named to the top post in late March.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on May 27, 2020.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press