Alberta electricity critic hopes province pulls back on power line blitz

EDMONTON — The staunchest citizen-critic of Alberta’s massive multibillion-dollar power line expansion says developments this week give hope that the plan will be scuttled before skyrocketing electricity bills drive businesses away.

EDMONTON — The staunchest citizen-critic of Alberta’s massive multibillion-dollar power line expansion says developments this week give hope that the plan will be scuttled before skyrocketing electricity bills drive businesses away.

Keith Wilson was reacting Wednesday to revelations in WikiLeaks that the province as far back as 2003 was pitching the idea of selling more power to the United States if only it could get more transmission lines built in Alberta.

Wilson also noted that three of the six candidates seeking to replace outgoing Premier Ed Stelmach this fall now want to revisit the legislation that has helped make possible $14 billion in proposed power line construction.

“It gives me comfort or reassurance that the truth is going to come out here, and that some very bad decisions that have been made by this government may be stopped in time,” said Wilson from his law office in St. Albert, north of Edmonton.

Wilson has been touring the province, speaking to landowners in packed townhalls about what he deems the dangers of legislation that has allowed power line construction to be fast-tracked.

He once was a member of the Wildrose Alliance party but quit when the government dismissed his criticism as partisan political hectoring.

He has also been labelled a “silk-suited lawyer” stirring up fear just to make a buck in public speaking.

Nonetheless, the message was getting through. When the government changed its land-planning act this spring, it brought him in to consult.

Energy Minister Ron Liepert has said the new power lines are critical to meet the needs of a growing province. Critics say it’s a massive overbuild that doesn’t pass the smell test if the power is to stay, as the government promises, within provincial boundaries.

Wilson calls it an eight-fold increase, akin to saying the six-lane superhighway between Edmonton and Calgary suddenly needs to be expanded to about 48.

The critic’s case was given a boost Tuesday with release on the WikiLeaks website of a U.S. diplomatic cable in 2003.

The cable, from Paul Cellucci, who was U.S. ambassador at the time, said Alberta officials were keen to ship power south but said “there is limited capacity” to do so.

Shortly after the cable, the province’s then-energy minister Murray Smith announced that consumers, who were supposed to pay half the cost of new transmission lines from Fort McMurray to Calgary, would now pay for it all.

In response to the WikiLeaks story, Stelmach has said that the government doesn’t plan to authorize power exports and, if it did, power companies would pay the freight.

Wilson said taxpayers are now forced to take Stelmach’s team at its word because two years ago that same government granted itself sweeping authority over electricity. It changed a law to remove a requirement that said all transmission line projects had to undergo an arm’s-length public review to ensure the power was actually needed and that costs would be reasonable.

Cabinet can now unilaterally order a power line if it deems the need critical. It has already passed $6-billion worth of projects under that provision as part of the $14-billion upgrade plan.

“We’ve removed the fundamental check and balance that is critical,” said Wilson.

Consumer advocates warn the construction will hike residential power bills by well over $100 a year and perhaps up to $400 if there are cost overruns.

Wilson said the key issue is business bills. He said that point has been made in recent weeks at hearings into where to run the Heartland transmission line near Edmonton.

“Over the next five years people’s industrial power rates and commercial on-demand rates will triple,” he said.

“A lot of businesses have testified under oath they will be uncompetitive. They will have to close their doors or move.”

Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith agreed.

“The way our transmission system is set up the lion’s share of the cost falls on our industrial consumers,” said Smith.

“This will be the difference between them staying in business or going out of business or staying in Alberta or going somewhere else. And with that you’ll see a lot of jobs exit.

“The repercussions through the Alberta economy are going to be severe. And why? So a handful of private companies can export power to American consumers and stick Alberta ratepayers with the tab. It’s just not fair.”

The issue has even become political within the ranks of Stelmach’s own party and among those vying to take his job.

Conservative leadership candidates Ted Morton, Alison Redford and Gary Mar have each said the amended law and the projects it has spawned need some kind of re-examination.

“While I have never doubted the need for additional transmission capacity, I have never been persuaded of the need for two DC lines between Edmonton and Calgary,” Morton said in a release.

“I was not persuaded as a private member. I was not persuaded as a cabinet minister, and I am still not persuaded today.”

Alberta’s NDP pushed the government on the power issue in the legislature during the spring sitting, highlighting reports from consumer advocates warning of soaring prices on power bills.

Party leader Brian Mason said Wednesday that power isn’t the only issue.

Last week, he noted, the head of food giant Nestle announced in Geneva that it was negotiating with the province on how to create a water exchange, even though the province has said its water is not for sale.

Last November, leaked Health Department documents outlined a government plan to expand private care through further delisting of services and legalizing forms of private insurance. Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky denied drastic changes were in the works.

Mason said whether it’s water, power or health, there’s a yawning credibility gap between what the Stelmach government says and what it does.

“It’s unlike anything in government in Canada or anywhere else,” he said.

“I’ve never seen a government so consistently deceitful with its citizens.”