In June 2013, the new Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) was introduced with much fanfare. Under the pretense of creating a more efficient regulator, the AER has become the central regulatory body overseeing all aspects of energy resource activities in the province.
Bold assurances were made that the AER would take its environmental responsibilities seriously and become a "best in class" regulator that it would "usher in a new era of energy regulating for the province."
Actions, however, speak louder than words.
Since 2012, the province has experienced a flurry of high-profile spills and accidents from oil and gas operations that have impacted neighbouring First Nations communities, the environment and Alberta residents. From the 2012 crude oil spill into the Red Deer River near Sundre to the uncontrolled bitumen leak near Cold Lake that started in spring 2013, these events and many others have left observers wondering whether the AER is indeed serious about enforcing the law.
That's why Ecojustice lawyers have filed a number of letters seeking updates on the AER's investigations into these major spills. We wanted to remind the AER that Albertans and Canadians expect that where the law is broken, those responsible should be held to account. We also wanted the AER to know that someone was watching and that we would be hold it to its promise to be a "best in class" regulator.
But there's a telling disconnect between what the AER says it is doing during public appearances and what actions it has actually taken on the ground, where the damage is.
When asked about the AER's approach to enforcement, CEO Jim Ellis pointed to a number of new enforcement powers that the AER has that its predecessors didn't. He stressed that the AER is "holding companies accountable that are having difficulties" and that it is "not afraid to come in and do what we have to do."
But the AER's actions to date suggest otherwise. While the AER has made regulatory orders in some cases, no charges have been laid related to any of the oil spills that made headlines last summer. And for the most part, the public remains in the dark about how those spills have affected their communities and the environment.
As the AER enters its second year, it has a golden opportunity to live up to its big promises.
With the debate over pipelines and oil sands expansion likely to continue for years to come, Canadians deserve assurances that oil and gas operations will be done in accordance with the law. And where the law is broken, fines and other sanctions should be enforced.
In the past, where we believed that regulators failed to enforce the law, Ecojustice has stepped in and commenced private prosecutions. As always, we will be watching closely.
In the coming weeks and months we will see whether Alberta's new regulator will demonstrate itself as a "best in class" regulator, or whether all the hype around Alberta's new regulator was just that -- hype.
This post was written by Ecojustice staff lawyer Fraser Thomson. Ecojustice is one of Canada's leading charities using the law to protect and restore Canada's environment. Learn more at ecojustice.ca.