EDMONTON - Alberta Premier Alison Redford reversed her own government's decision Friday on a controversial multibillion-dollar power line project, but now faces accusations of bias and political interference.
Just hours after the Alberta Utilities Commission announced it was putting three proposed mega-power line projects on hold at the request of the province, Redford told reporters that there was a "miscommunication" and that she still wants the Heartland project to continue.
The Heartland project — two lines and a substation — would deliver more power to residents and to heavy industries on Edmonton's northeast boundary.
She said she will direct the arms-length utilities commission to proceed with its plan Monday to announce a decision on whether the line is needed.
"I believe it's a critical transmission project," Redford told reporters.
"It's important to the economic development of the province. It's important in terms of economic impact, and that's been my consistent message for eight months."
But Keith Wilson — a lawyer acting for landowners and businesses fighting the line on the grounds the power isn't needed — said that by stumping for the Heartland line, Redford has made a major legal error.
"By making the public statement in her capacity as premier that she effectively thinks that the line should be approved she is interfering in the independent processes of the utilities commission," said Wilson.
"The chairman who convened that hearing gets appointed by her. He keeps his job at her pleasure. What is he going to decide now, despite the evidence in front of him?"
It's a public relations fiasco as well, he said.
"For her to come out and essentially say what she thinks this panel should decide is offensive to all of those citizens and business leaders who participated and testified in the (Heartland) public hearing process.
"She's crossed the line."
If the utilities commission votes for the line on Monday, said Wilson, he will seek to have the decision overturned in court on the grounds of political interference.
The utilities commission originally put the three projects on hold after receiving a request from Energy Minister Ted Morton.
Redford said her miscommunication with Morton is a consequence of a new government trying to do too much too fast.
"Cabinet was appointed last Wednesday. We're working very hard to bring in line all of our decision-making processes," she said.
"It was a miscommunication and a result of many people with very good intentions trying to move quickly."
The utilities commission will still suspend hearings on the Western Alberta line to Calgary and the Eastern Alberta line to the south. Those hearings were set to begin in the next few weeks and months.
Commission spokesman Jim Law said the three lines were part of a group of four ordered by former premier Ed Stelmach's cabinet because they were deemed critical to Alberta's growing power needs.
Law said Morton didn't ask for a hold on the fourth project, which will deliver backup power to a new hospital in south Calgary.
Stelmach's cabinet ordered the lines under legislation passed in 2009, known as Bill 50.
Those rules allow cabinet to bypass an old law that said public hearings had to be held to determine if a power line was actually needed before it was built. Now, cabinet can order up the line unilaterally if it deems it critical to staving off a looming power shortage.
The issue has dogged the governing Progressive Conservatives. Critics from all parties have charged the proposed lines are an over-build akin to replacing the four-lane highway between Edmonton and Calgary with a 32-lane version.
The reasoning, they say, is pure pork-barrel politics. They suggest the Tories want to award contracts to rich corporate friends who would get the lines built with money from taxpayers, then sell excess power to the U.S. at a hefty profit.
Some business owners have said the astronomical costs added to power bills to fund the projects would discourage investment and drive them out of business.
Ron Liepert, the current finance minister but energy minister under Stelmach, has insisted the added cost to power bills would be minimal and the lines are needed to avoid brownouts to Alberta's rapidly growing industry and residential population.
During her recent Progressive Conservative party leadership campaign, Redford promised to review the lines and Bill 50.
NDP Leader Brian Mason said Redford needs to go further.
“Real change begins with scrapping Bill 50," said Mason in a news release. “Albertans are already grappling with rising electricity prices, with spikes in the double digit percentages monthly."
Wildrose party Leader Danielle Smith agreed.
“This government, with Ms. Redford’s full support, started a fire with Bill 50. The only way to put the fire out is to repeal it,” Smith said in a news release.
“This is a bad law and cancelling a project here or there doesn't change that."