There were days through the spring and summer when thousands of people poured into Calgary’s streets to demonstrate support for Canada’s upstream oil and gas sector.
There were placards, posters and T-shirts with slogans. There were chants and speeches. There was undeniable passion.
They rallied to support the integrity of Canadian oil and gas – and they were telling politicians (and other Canadians) in no uncertain terms to get with the support program.
The key word here is integrity. Rally attendees were telling politicians: Quit screwing up the sector and start supporting its integrity. Do that and you support Canadian prosperity. Integrity and prosperity go hand in hand.
So will we pour into the streets to rally in similar fashion to protect the Alberta Energy Regulator’s (AER) integrity – and its critical independence – as it enters a process with potential for political tinkering?
The United Conservative Party government has launched its AER review. And it smells to high heaven of craven politicking and agenda setting – including, one might suspect, an effort to slide the AER closer to Alberta Energy, the provincial ministry for most things on the province’s energy landscape.
AER’s independence from government isn’t necessarily top of mind for ordinary Albertans. But the regulator’s ability to protect the interests all Albertans, not just those noisy UCP supporters, is in peril.
This could rock the foundation of system that has worked marvellously well for decades.
Energy Minister Sonya Savage has made much of AER’s alleged growth in staff and the lengthy time it takes to process applications. Those dynamics, she contends, discourage investment and interest in Alberta’s energy industry.
But would investors be eager to park capital in a jurisdiction in which the independent regulator approved applications that then resulted in lengthy hearings, and then court action?
Those kind of delays can kill projects.
Since 2013 when the current AER was formed, has staffing actually grown?
And given AER’s recent initiatives in cutting red tape, are application times actually increasing?
The Responsible Energy Development Act sets out much of the legislative framework that AER works within and it has a strong focus on stakeholder engagement.
Presumably, these are details that will be up to deputy ministers Grant Sprague and Bev Yee, who are leading the review, to ferret out as they delve into details that may not be apparent to politicians.
An impartial review might also point to how under-investment has hampered AER’s ability to discharge its responsibilities.
In the spirit of fairness – and to avoid the perception of political machinations – it would be a good idea for the review board to get a first-hand demo of the OneStop toolkit.
Is there a political agenda at work?
That seems logical given the UCP penchant for finding ways of appeasing, even compounding, industry angst.
So the review seems impeccably and deliberately timed to be kept off the public radar, since the UCP machine has rolled out a flurry of panels and consultations. That there’s a federal election concurrently running in which Alberta angst will be front and centre also provides a useful veil.
All of this, of course, may simply be cover for coming budgetary blades that will cut swiftly and deeply.
That’s why Albertans must step up, including those whose daily bread is earned in the energy sector.
It might be tempting to vilify AER as playing a part in the woes that have befallen the industry. But quite the opposite is true.
And once we get our hydrocarbons to tidewater, the world will want to know that those products come from a jurisdiction that’s well regulated and that the environment is appropriately protected. And that all that happens as the result of a framework safely distanced from political interference.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers has survey data that says people around the world prefer Canadian hydrocarbon supplies. And the summer’s rallies featured a common cry: “The world needs more Canada.”
That’s true. Canada’s energy sector has much to offer, not least of which is a strong regulatory ethos.
But it’s also true that the world expects more of Canada.
Independent regulation is the least we can offer.
That’s why it’s time to rally again to ensure UCP doesn’t damage an enterprise critical to provincial prosperity.
Bill Whitelaw is president and CEO at JuneWarren-Nickle’s Energy Group.