The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) is taking over the duties of the now defunct Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) — which was funded in part by taxpayers — and Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development. Previously, the ERCB was responsible for making sure “appropriate precautions are taken to develop oil sands resources in the interests of all Albertans…through regulation, reviewing applications, managing conditions and approvals, surveillance, and enforcement” — now, those responsibilities will fall to the AER. On top of that, according to the AER’s website, the AER’s duties include “allocating and conserving water resources, managing public lands, and protecting the environment while securing their economic benefits for all Albertans,” as well as administering Canada’s Water Act and Public Lands Act, dealing with fossil fuel-related spills, and approving or denying oil and gas permits.
The shift to the AER as the main environmental regulator in Alberta is part of the provincial government’s plan to streamline the approval process for oil companies. It’s drawn concern from environmentalists in Alberta, who are worried that the AER’s financial backing from the fossil fuel industry makes the group too close to the industry it’s supposed to regulate.
Adding to their worry is the fact that the AER’s chairman of the board, Gerry Protti, is one of the founders of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, a major oil lobbying group.
“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 oilpatch,” Alberta legislative assembly member Rachel Notley told the Edmonton Journal.
The AER won’t be the first fossil fuel-funded organization to oversee the tar sands, however — air quality in the tar sands region is monitored by the Wood Buffalo Environmental Association, a group that’s funded by Canada’s oil and gas industry. Tar sands development in Alberta has come under public scrutiny recently, as debates over Keystone XL and other pipelines that would carry the bitumen heat up. One study found levels of air pollution downwind of the oil and tar sands-rich “Industrial Heartland” of Alberta rival levels found in the world’s most polluted cities, and that the pollution could be tied increased incidence of blood cancers in men that live in the area. This year, an environmental report card found that the climate change impacts of oil sands and other unconventional fuel sources in Canada were growing. And on average, according to the ERCB, Alberta has had two oil spills per day, every day, for the past 37 years.