Alberta rejects challenges to Heartland decision

An Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC) review panel on May 15 rejected requests by several parties that the AUC reconsider its approval of the Heartland transmission project (Decision 2011-436).

Strathcona County, Responsible Electricity Transmission for Albertans (RETA), two families, and a farm near the AltaLink/EPCOR line’s proposed route filed challenges to the AUC’s original decision. A challenge by a sixth group, the FIRST group, was dismissed in a ruling dated Jan. 24.

“The AUC is supposed to be an arms-length, independent body that regulates the transmission industry and hears applications and considers the best public interest, and it really isn’t happening,” RETA vice president John Kristensen told TransmissionHub on May 16. “99.5% of all the applications submitted to it by the transmission industry are accepted as recommended by the applicants. This has got to stop.”

Kristensen added, “We aren’t saying, ‘Put an end to transmission of electricity.’ We’re just saying let’s move this juice around the province in a much smarter way, and in a safer way than we are now.”

Opponents could have appealed the original decision in one of two ways: either to the Court of Appeal of Alberta, or to the AUC as a request it to review and vary its decision, an AUC spokesperson told TransmissionHub.

The opponents chose to appeal to the AUC, which appointed the review panel, consisting of different members than the original hearing panel.

The review panel ultimately dismissed opponents’ charges that the AUC’s hearing panel made legal errors in arriving at the original decision. Opponents said the AUC had not correctly considered some of the evidence submitted including the costs and risks of undergrounding portions of the line, had improperly assessed the line’s visual impacts, and relied upon incorrect or incomplete magnetic field calculations.

Opponents also charged that the original decision failed to consider new facts, changes in circumstances, or evidence not previously available. Those new facts included a health study on the effects of magnetic fields, the financial impact of the closing of the Colchester school near the line’s route, and the government’s review of the Eastern Alberta Transmission Line (EATL) and Western Alberta Transmission Line (WATL).

The 63-page decision addressed each of the objections, ultimately concluding that “none of the review applicants have raised a substantial doubt as to the correctness of the Heartland decision due to an error of fact, law or jurisdiction. Further, it is the review panel’s opinion that none of the review applicants have raised a reasonable possibility that there are new facts, a change in circumstances, or facts not previously placed in evidence that could lead the commission to materially vary or rescind the Heartland decision.”

The review panel’s decision upholds the original routing of the C$610m (US$603m), 500-kV Heartland transmission line, meaning that a portion will not be ordered underground, as some opponents had sought.

In a statement posted on Strathcona County’s web site, Mayor Linda Osinchuk said, “We did everything in our power to represent the community’s interests, and to bring the environmental and health considerations to the forefront.”

She added, “Unfortunately, the final decision was not ours, but the AUC’s.”

The Heartland line was originally approved under Bill 50, a controversial “fast-track” rule passed in the legislative assembly under former Premier Ed Stelmach. The bill declared the Heartland project, along with the EATL and WATL “critical transmission infrastructure” (CTI).

Critics have questioned the need for the lines, and have been particularly harsh in their assessment of Bill 50.

In response, Premier Alison Redford appointed a blue-ribbon critical transmission review committee (CTRC) and directed it to hold hearings to evaluate whether the EATL and WATL were needed. The CTRC report issued Feb. 13 concluded that both lines were needed.

In its Feb. 23 response to the CTRC’s report, the government of Alberta acknowledged that Bill 50 was no longer needed and should be repealed.

“[W]ith the ‘catch-up’ provided by the CTI projects and improvements to the regulatory approval process, the Cabinet authority to approve future CTI is no longer required,” the government said in its response. “Accordingly, the government will introduce legislation in the fall 2012 session to amend the Electric Utilities Act placing both the need assessment and routing of future transmission projects under the AUC.”

Even though the action plan was drafted under former Energy Minister Ted Morton, who lost his seat in the legislative assembly in the April 23 election, a spokesperson for the Alberta Ministry of Energy told TransmissionHub on May 16 that the plan to amend the Electric Utilities Act during the fall legislative session remains in effect.