Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
October 22, 2007
Gov't bill would steamroll over dissent
Earlier this year, Alberta's supposedly objective Energy and Utilities Board got itself in hot water by using private investigators to spy on opponents of a major 500 kV electrical transmission line from Genesee to near Calgary.
Well, there will be no more "need" for spying if the government wins approval for Bill 46 at the fall sitting of the legislature. The new Alberta Utilities Commission will be able to approve projects without the bother of hearing what the public has to say.
Bill 46 - the Alberta Utility Commission Act - eliminates the EUB and will split its duties between the new AUC and a new Energy Resources Conservation Board. That part is fine enough.
What is of concern is that the AUC will be able to make an order or decision without giving public notice or holding a hearing. The bill also gives the AUC the power to prevent members of the public, including affected landowners, from making verbal presentations or being represented by counsel even if a hearing is held.
Bill 46 also eliminates any requirement for industry to prove a transmission line is needed by the public or is in the public interest. The AUC can approve a proposal without considering present or future public convenience or need.
Presumably this means there is no need to consider the health and environmental effects of coal-fired generators and overhead power lines.
The bill limits the time Albertans can launch a public appeal of an AUC order to 30 days. As well, the bill is retroactive to June 1, 2003.
The newly-appointed chairman of the EUB William Tilleman has declared the approval process that has taken place for the 500 kV line to be the equivalent of a mistrial and announced the need for the process to begin again. This is only reasonable since the EUB declares its vision as "To have a regulatory framework that inspires public confidence."
Public confidence was lacking in the EUB's antics over the transmission line. But public confidence will be irrelevant if the legislature approves Bill 46.
Perhaps this is why AltaLink, the province's largest electricity transmission provider, says it will submit a new proposal once Bill 46 is passed by the legislature and expects to have approval within six months.
Bill 46 is the magic bullet for utility companies. It will allow them to win approval for their often-controversial projects without being bugged by the people of Alberta.
Catholic social teaching says a few things about this.
First, it emphasizes "The political community is at the service of civil society" (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, n. 418). That is, the primary role of the Alberta government and its quasi-judicial, semi-independent bodies should be to protect the public interest. Public input and expert testimony is necessary to ensure the public interest is protected.
Second, a key principle in the proper ordering of society is subsidiarity - the state must "refrain from anything that would de facto restrict the existential space of the smaller essential cells of society" (n. 186).
But Bill 46 will establish a quasi-judicial body that can decide to listen to only one side of the story - the industry side - and ignore the voices of families, voluntary associations and local municipalities.
The approval process for utilities will be quiet and efficient, but there will be little room for public opinion.
The Compendium warns that different interests conflict in civil society and there is an ever-present danger of the interests of the strong prevailing over those of the weak.
One role of government is to ensure that the needs and voices of the weak are heard and protected. Bill 46 could do a much better job of that.
- Glen Argan
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