ATCO CEO Has It All Wrong
At a recent ATCO subsidiary Canadian Utilities annual general meeting, ATCO Group CEO Nancy Southern suggested that a cumbersome electricity transmission regulatory review process is the reason behind Alberta consumers paying among the highest electricity prices in Canada (Edmonton Journal). She complained about the documentation required by regulators in Alberta to justify construction of new high voltage transmission lines. Southern’s comments show just how out-of-touch the electricity transmission industry has become. The facts certainly do not support her contention.
During the past 6 to 7 years, the Alberta Government has been doing all it can to streamline the process for construction of new high voltage transmission lines to the point where the associated regulatory review process is a joke. In 2008, the P.C. Government exempted all high voltage power line construction from the requirement for Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs). Since 2008, transmission companies no longer need to submit detailed environmental studies that must comply with provincial environmental impact standards. Rather, it is up to the discretion of the Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC) to determine how much or how little environmental information even needs to be submitted by companies planning to build new high voltage power lines. As a result of this change, we have seen new high voltage lines built right in the middle of environmentally sensitive wetlands and other natural areas where birds are being killed through collision with overhead conductors, shield wires and towers.
To further make it easier for companies like ATCO to build new power lines, the Alberta Government passed the Electric Statutes Amendment Act in 2009 (Bill 50), wherein the Alberta Government unilaterally determined what is critical transmission infrastructure and eliminated any public input into determining whether specific new high voltage lines were even necessary. The Heartland Transmission Project, Eastern Alberta Transmission Line and Western Alberta Transmission Line were among those built pursuant to Bill 50. Industrial power consumer groups, academic studies, electricity consumer advocacy groups, municipalities and homeowner associations have provided volumes and volumes of data to show that these and many other new lines were not necessary; nevertheless, the AUC approved them.
Also in 2009, the Alberta Government passed the Land Assembly Project Area Act which made it much easier for the Minister of Infrastructure to designate private land for future high voltage power lines. This legislation means that any private land designated was essentially sterilized for other uses for an indefinite period of time.
In the U.S.A., state and federal politicians get involved with debates about the need for, and construction and routing of, new high voltage power lines because their constituents demand their participation. On the other hand, in Alberta, P.C. MLAs leave electricity transmission companies to run their businesses with almost no oversight to ensure only those power lines that are necessary are built, that consumers pay fair electricity prices, that Albertans’ health, safety and property values are considered, and that environmental protection is appropriately considered. In Alberta, very seldom do P.C. MLAs support their constituents’ concerns about the negative impacts of overhead high voltage lines. It is also important to note that, in the U.S.A., the environmental assessment requirements for new high voltage lines are much more rigorous than in Alberta, which helps to minimize the negative impacts on the environment.
Almost all applications (99%) made by companies like ATCO to the AUC for construction of new transmission lines are approved with very few substantive or meaningful conditions. The AUC essentially rubber stamps the applications submitted by transmission companies. Input from landowners, homeowners, municipalities, electricity consumer groups, health experts, environmental experts, property value experts, and others who question the need for, and safety of, overhead high voltage power lines is generally ignored by the AUC and Alberta Government.
With respect to the high costs of electricity for Alberta homeowners, businesses and industry, there are many reasons, none of which have anything to do with Nancy Southern’s contention that a “cumbersome and costly” regulatory process is at fault. Many electricity market experts have indicated Alberta’s fully deregulated electricity generation market system, the only one in Canada, has resulted in high power costs. Another reason Albertans pay among the highest electricity prices in Canada is the increasing number of unnecessary transmission lines that are being built, the costs for which are 100% funded by consumers. Many of these new lines are energized to just fractions of their full capacity, which illustrates how unnecessary they are; some of these lines don’t even have any customers. As well, electricity costs are higher in Alberta because the costs of constructing transmission infrastructure are inflated in Alberta – we pay higher new-line construction costs than almost anywhere else in North America.
In summary, Alberta’s electricity transmission and generation regulatory review processes are not “cumbersome and costly”, as Southern suggests; on the contrary, they are inadequate and ineffective. Alberta’s streamlined regulatory review processes are extremely industry-friendly, to the point where industry’s bottom line is highly favoured over Albertans’ health, safety, property values, electricity costs and environmental protection.