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Fox watching the hen house? Environmental regulators rush to new industry jobs

Dozens of environment officers who watched over oil industry activities in Alberta are starting to leave their government posts for more lucrative jobs within the energy industry. 

Photo by Kris Krug

More than 75 environment officers who watched over oil industry activities left the provincial environment department this fall, to take higher paying jobs with the new industry-funded Alberta Energy Regulator. Yet another 75-plus are expected to leave in the spring, according to the Edmonton Journal. 

From the Alberta Energy Regulator website

The AER is 100 per cent funded by industry and is authorized to collect funds through an administrative fee levied on oil and gas wells, oil sands mines, and coal mines. 

What's more, thousands of files on the oil industry's activity relating to the Public Lands Act were transferred over to the regulator in mid-November.

This new shift in staffing and the moving of years of files out of a government department to the new arm’s length regulator are reportedly key steps in the government’s plan, announced last spring, to create a more streamlined approval process for oil companies that wanted “one window” to streamline permits for new projects.

In the past, companies had to apply to the environment department for some permits, as well as the old regulator, the now defunct Energy Resources Conservation Board.

Handing over regulation to industry

The Alberta provincial government handed AER responsibility for administering the Water Act, Public Lands Act, and the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act (dealing with spills) as they pertain to energy companies, in order to streamline the process of obtaining permits.

But the government assures that despite being industry-funded, AER will have transparency built in to enforce environment laws as strongly as occurred under the environment department. AER is funded solely by industry, whereas previously, the regulator was funded jointly by industry and government.

Environment department staff began to move over in September, with the bulk leaving in late November, according to documents. The group includes fish and wildlife officers, forestry officers, biologists, and rangers in various locations.

The salaries in some cases are 25 to 80 per cent higher, according to Mike Dempsey, a vice-president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees. Many are union members who must give up AUPE membership to transfer, he added.

Industry getting too close to regulators? 

Some worry that industry has more opportunity to influence the new regulator given that its chairman of the board is Gerry Protti, a founder of the powerful oil lobby group, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP).

Under Protti is chief executive, Jim Ellis, a former deputy minister of environment with a troubling track record, lawyer and New Democrat MLA Rachel Notley told the Journal.

Notley said it was "under Ellis' watch" that the environment department circulated an internal briefing note criticizing the Pembina Institute, for publishing “negative media on the oilsands”, stating that as a reason to deny environmental groups standing at an oilsands hearing. The memo was revealed in a recent trial in which the judge ruled against the department.

The environment department may lose even more staff, the Journal notes, as longtime deputy minister Brad Pickering has been appointed to head Alberta’s environmental monitoring agency that will take over the job of measuring pollution in air, water and wildlife when the current joint federal provincial monitoring agency expires next year.

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