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Rural municipalities call for bigger role in energy project approvals

Government regulators must clearly define public interest, says Rural Municipalities of Alberta

Alberta’s regulators must do a better job of alerting municipalities about proposed projects and ensure any approvals respect local planning priorities, says a Rural Municipalities Association committee.

The RMA’s Quasi-Judicial Agency Member Committee reviewed decision making at Alberta Utilities Commission, Alberta Energy Regulator and Natural Resources Conservation Board and found that their mandates and complicated approval processes all included “barriers to municipal participation and consideration of municipal plans and perspectives.

“These barriers prevent them from understanding local impacts of the projects they approve, and therefore prevent them from making decisions that are truly in the public interest,” says a recently released summary from the committee.

Eight recommendations were made by the committee, led by a call for the provincial government and quasi-judicial agencies to work with stakeholders to ensure land use impacts and reclamation requirements are part of all approvals.

A key recommendation calls for an overhaul of the approval process to include a “public interest evaluation framework” that includes a common set of public interest questions that must be addressed before decisions are made.

Under the existing system a “clear disconnect exists between municipalities, industry and regulators about what is within the scope of public interest and how to weigh different perspectives when making decisions on project approvals,” says the report.

Committee member Red Deer County Coun. Brent Ramsay agreed public interest needs to be better defined.

“(The agencies) always talk about acting in the public interest. But when we interviewed them none of them really had the same definition of what the public interest was or how they factored it into their approvals,” said Ramsay, one of six county representatives on the committee chaired by Vulcan County’s Jason Schneider.

It is also recommended that agencies do a better job of letting municipalities know what projects are in the pipeline and that engagement and approval processes be consistent across all three agencies.

The committee also urges AUC and AER to adopt the NRCB’s practice of aligning projects with local municipal development plans. Land use bylaws and intermunicipal development plans should also be adhered to.

Ramsay said under the current system, the AUC could approve a solar facility in a county and if it butts up against local land use regulations, those must be changed to accommodate the project rather than the project be modified.

“There’s just a complete lack of respect or even acknowledgement of the local decisions and land use planning when they are approving these projects,” he said.

“If they respected our planning documents then we could have more of an impact at the local level to target these areas where it would be more beneficial (for projects) to go rather than them just going wherever they can get landowners to agree to it.”

Municipalities should also automatically be granted status as an affected party at all hearings and municipal costs be covered.

The report points out that the Municipal Government Act (MGA) requires municipalities to guide development through municipal development plans and supporting land use bylaws.

However, the MGA gives all three agencies “clear paramountcy” to approve projects regardless of a municipality’s current or future land use goals.

“This has led to situations across the province where projects have been approved despite not aligning with local land use planning, leading to impacts on neighbouring landowners, infrastructure, the local environment, and in other areas not considered or mitigated during the project approval process,” says the report.

A lack of alignment with local planning documents should trigger a hearing or other dispute resolution mechanism.

Ramsay said now the RMA has made it clear what it thinks should be done to approve the current state of affairs municipalities are awaiting responses from government and the agencies. Both AUC and AER are undertaking their own internal reviews whose conclusions may have a bearing on the RMA’s next steps.

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