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Groups demand that head of new Alberta energy regulator resign before he starts

EDMONTON - Three dozen landowner, labour, aboriginal and environmental groups are demanding that the man hired to head Alberta's new energy regulator resign before he even starts.

A letter signed by such organizations as the Treaty 8 First Nations, the Alberta Federation of Labour and the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment says industry insider Gerry Protti is not the appropriate choice.

"I've seen biased appointments before, but this one tops the list," said Don Bester of the Alberta Surface Rights Group, which represents landowners.

"There is no neutral side to this thing with him. His main theme throughout his life is oil and gas. You can't change a person's way of thinking by appointing him to a board and saying, 'Be neutral. Don't be biased,'" Bester said.

Energy Minister Ken Hughes defended the appointment and urged opponents to wait until the entire board is named.

"I have every confidence that Gerry Protti is a thoughtful Albertan who recognizes the importance of balance between energy development and environmental and landowner concerns," Hughes said. "But if that isn't enough for people, I urge them to wait until we appoint the full group."

Protti is the founding president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the industry's main lobby group. He was also an executive for Encana, the energy company that preceded Cenovus.

Protti was the industry's representative during the design of the new board, which takes over in June. It will combine the regulatory functions of the old board as well as much of the enforcement and investigation currently done by Alberta Environment.

"Our organization was invited to Edmonton to go over this bill," said Bester. "Arriving at 8 o'clock in the morning, there was a wall 40 feet long and eight or nine feet high with nothing but those flipover charts of what industry had already put down to the government.

"It was all decided before we even got there. And the main orchestrator of that piece of legislation, Gerry Protti, was on the podium telling us exactly how this was going to come down."

Now, Bester suggested, the lobbyist who helped design the legislation will get to implement it.

It won't help the reputation of a province that's already struggling to convince customers that its oil and natural gas resources are developed responsibly, said Mike Hudema of Greenpeace.

"We have a lot of different players looking for reassurances that the Alberta government is serious about getting tough on cleaning up its atrocious environmental record," he said.

"If you ever wanted to see how serious the Alberta government was in balancing its energy wants with its environmental concerns, I think you just need to look to Mr. Protti's appointment. It's pretty stark that the Alberta government is much more concerned about protecting the oil and gas industry than they are about protecting local communities or the environment."

The letter also criticizes the new board itself.

"Fewer people will regulate and enforce Alberta's environmental regulations. It also concentrates power in fewer hands so that landowner rights and treaty impacts may not be properly addressed.

"This new approach appears to favour proponents and limits the opportunity of interveners to raise valid concerns."

Hughes played down those concerns, He said Albertans — and international observers — will be satisfied with the new board's performance once they see it in action.

"The proof is in the pudding. Clearly, Alberta has very strong standards. I challenge any jurisdiction in America to compare what we're doing in this province."

The public will still have access to the courts to appeal the regulator's decisions. But the new approach chokes off internal avenues of appeal that existed under the old system for aboriginal and public concerns. It also makes it harder to gain standing to appear before a regulatory hearing.

Panel members who will run hearings on project applications will be appointed directly by government.

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