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New Democrats release draft of Alberta's plan to reform energy rules

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EDMONTON - The Alberta New Democrats say a leaked draft of proposed rules for unconventional oil and gas developments such as fracking are an example of how the governing Tories are increasingly excluding the public from having its say.

"This government has completely abandoned its obligation to ensure the interests of all Albertans are represented in the course of deciding what parts of the province are developed and how," environment critic Rachel Notley said Thursday.

The document, dated May 30, outlines a new way to control energy development and proposes a pilot project that includes ranges of threatened caribou herds.

Bob Curran of the Alberta Energy Regulator said the document is only a plan for a pilot project.

"This is not regulatory change — it is a pilot," he wrote in an email.

"Once the pilot is complete, we will asses it to determine how to proceed. If we decide to propose regulatory change, we will solicit feedback from all stakeholders."

Curran said the pilot is based on years of work and public input. A presentation on the regulator's website is dated July 2013.

"It's safe to say that we presented this dozens of times across Alberta," he said.

If the pilot project becomes the new standard, companies would identify environmental risks in an area and explain how they would manage to mitigate or avoid them.

"This approach involves identifying risks and managing them to achieve objectives, driving the accountability to those that carry out the activities," the document says.

The intent is to force companies to take into account other activities in an area such as forestry or agriculture. It would also allow the Alberta Energy Regulator to fine-tune requirements to the specifics of one region.

The document characterizes the change as one "from activity-by-activity regulation to the regulation of multiple activities across large areas."

Critics say it's one approval process for all of a company's activities in a single region.

"If I'm a landowner, I don't even know if I'm going to have a road or a wellsite on my land," said Duncan Kenyon of the Pembina Institute, an environmental think-tank.

"That means I can't even really tell you if I oppose this or not. Now I find out down the road there are going to be activities on my land — tough. The approval's in place."

Kenyon also points out the intent is for the policy to work in tandem with other government legislation such as land-use plans. However, none of those plans are in place.

Most are still being developed, something likely to take years. The government hopes to have its pilot program running by September.

The plan also relies on industry self-reporting on how well it's living up to its commitments.

"That's not regulating any more," said Kenyon. "That's self-regulation with auditing going on.

"In this kind of a sector, I'm not sure that self-regulation is a real appropriate way of doing it."

Notley said the so-called play-based regulations are being developed without any public input. Industry received a copy of the proposal June 3.

She sees it as part of a trend by the government and the regulator to narrow the scope of public input on energy development.

"We already are excluding the vast majority of Albertans, and now we're changing the well-by-well application process and replacing it with, 'Well, we're going to drill somewhere between one and 500 wells in this 500-square-kilometre area in the next 20 years. Is that OK with you?'"

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