10/23/2012 11:25 EDT | Updated 12/23/2012 05:12 EST

Alberta introduces bill to revert to old process for power line approvals

EDMONTON - The Alberta government moved Tuesday to reverse its fast-track process for approving power lines.

Energy Minister Ken Hughes introduced a bill in the legislature to return control of approvals for the multibillion-dollar projects to the arm's-length Alberta Utilities Commission.

"We’ve listened to Albertans and we have responded,” said Hughes.

“This amendment ensures that Albertans have an opportunity to share their perspectives on the need for transmission infrastructure, and that decisions about the construction of future transmission lines will be made by an independent agency.”

The utilities commission ran the approvals process until 2009, when the government of then-premier Ed Stelmach changed the law to give cabinet the right to approve the lines if it deemed the need critical.

Stelmach then ordered up four new power projects, including massive north-south lines running south down each side of the province.

One is AltaLink's Western Alberta Transmission Line, which will run 350 kilometres from west of Edmonton at Genessee to an area just east of Calgary.

ATCO Electric has the other, which will run 500 km from east of Edmonton down to Brooks.

The cost of both lines is about $3 billion.

Opposition NDP and Wildrose critics said the deal was unfair and unnecessary, arguing it was an insider scheme to allow power to sell the extra electricity at a profit to the United States.

Responding to public concerns, Premier Alison Redford, when she took over last fall, created the independent Critical Transmission Review Committee to determine if the lines really were needed.

In February, committee chairman Brian Heidecker reported there was a need for the power lines to avoid brownouts or other problems in a rapidly expanding provincial economy.

Heidecker also said it was a uniquely critical situation to get the lines approved in a hurry to avoid brown outs or bottlenecks, but now that they were approved, government should revert to the old system of the utilities commission.

Heidecker also said the cabinet approval was a prudent reaction to an "extraordinary set of circumstances that served its purpose.

"But we and everybody that we spoke to could not see any need to continue with the government having that authority. It was a better system to have it through the AUC."

The government later approved the extra two lines and agreed to change the approval process, resulting in Hughes Bill 8, the Electric Utilities Amendment Act, on Tuesday.