Alberta Court of Appeal agrees to hear challenge to Heartland line

The Alberta Court of Appeal has agreed to hear arguments against the Alberta Utilities Commission’s (AUC) Nov. 1, 2011 approval of the Heartland Transmission project.

Justice Ronald Berger on March 28 issued the decision accepting the appeal request by Alberta residents Stuart and Karen Shaw against the AUC, as well as the projects’ developers, Altalink Management and EPCOR Distribution & Transmission.

The Shaws argued that the AUC ignored “significant negative social and economic effects which they claim were attested to by witnesses who testified before the commission,” according to the decision.

In his decision accepting the appeal, Berger wrote, “The central issue before the [AUC] was whether approval of the line was or was not in the public interest.”

The AUC, however, has repeatedly stated that the determination of the overall need for the project was made by Bill 50, passed by the legislature in 2009 under Premier Ed Stelmach, which declared the Heartland line “critical transmission infrastructure.” The commission concluded that its authority was restricted to determining the social and economic impacts – the “public interest” – of the various routes, not of the project itself.

The Shaws have indicated they plan to challenge the AUC’s interpretation of its responsibilities with regard to the project. 

The Shaws also charged that there was political interference in the AUC’s decision. According to the court’s decision, they charged that Premier Alison Redford’s public comments supporting the project prejudiced the AUC.

In his decision, Berger addressed the Redford matter, saying: “[Taken] as a whole, I cannot see how [her public comments] can be construed as an attempt to influence the commission or to impugn its independence.”

However, the court will examine the Shaws’ assertion that requests from Energy Minister Ted Morton, asking the AUC first to halt, then to resume, consideration of the project were tactics designed to pressure the commission.

In his decision accepting the appeal, Berger stated the question to be decided was whether “the decision to suspend [the project] would cause a reasonable person to apprehend bias on the basis of interference or influence on the part of a member of the Alberta Cabinet.”

Opponents of the line are elated by the decision.

“This is the first time that any of the groups that have opposed the Heartland line have gotten any traction on any front at all,” John Kristensen of the group Responsible Electricity Transmission for Albertans (RETA) told TransmissionHub March 29. “The Alberta government, no matter how many times we’ve met with them, they’ve declined to listen to us.”

It could still be several months before the two sides meet in a courtroom.

A court clerk told TransmissionHub on March 30 that the parties have to file a notice of appeal, then an appeal book containing support materials, and their factum. It depends in part on how quickly lawyers for the parties move and file the necessary documents, the clerk said.

After the documents and appropriate replies are filed, a hearing date will be set. The clerk estimated the hearing date could be set in early June, unless a special sitting for an earlier date is both requested and granted.

Under discussion since 2008, the Heartland project involves construction of a double circuit 500-kV line to connect the Heartland region, northeast of Fort Saskatchewan, to existing 500-kV transmission facilities that currently run along the southern edge of Edmonton.