WHEREAS the recent increase in wind energy developments throughout Alberta has illuminated the need for a provincially standardized set of regulations for the land development concerns faced by rural municipalities and rural land owners; and
WHEREAS rural municipalities are and will continue to be the most impacted jurisdictions where these developments will occur; and
WHEREAS the lack of standard regulations has made landowners skeptical and distrusting of wind energy developers due to future requirements for remediation and reclamation of wind energy developments; and
WHEREAS rural municipalities are faced with a lack of consistency in regulations over the assessment, taxation, and legal ramifications of various wind energy development issues both current and future; and
WHEREAS the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) has proven to be an effective approval and oversight regulatory agency for Alberta’s oil and gas (energy) industry for decades and is supported by existing and competent staff, policies and recognition by both landowners and industry, with processes and responsibilities negating the need to create additional bureaucracy;
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED the Rural Municipalities of Alberta (RMA) request the Government of Alberta to undertake the creation of a Renewable Energy Division within the AER to approve, regulate, and enforce the responsible development, reclamation, and assessment of renewable energy projects in the Province of Alberta;
FURTHER BE IT RESOLVED that renewable energy projects formally proceeding into the review and approval stage of the above-noted Renewable Energy Division are to be corporately approved and construction ready projects, not speculative or conditional in any way;
FURTHER BE IT RESOLVED that the RMA request the Government of Alberta to set up and enforce the collection of monetary funds towards the implementation of an Orphan Renewable Energy Fund to oversee potential future reclamation of abandoned renewable energy sites.
1) This Renewable Energy Division should be tasked with the following:
a) Receipt and review of proposed renewable energy projects taking into account any or additional requirements in the same manner of existing AER applications and regulations.
b) Approval and oversight/enforcement of regulations for renewables projects being developed.
c) Development of a proper assessment and taxation system for the leases and improvements.
d) Completion of amendments and updates as required to any other provincial legislation needing amendment such as the Municipal Government Act (MGA), etc.
The oil and gas industry in Alberta has evolved over decades to where many in the industry revere the AER as both an effective approving agency and watchdog to ensure Alberta maintains the highest level of environmental sustainability of oil and gas industry projects in the modern industrialized world. The placement of energy converting turbines delivering electricity to a substation could be looked upon as no different than oil producing pump-jacks pipelining oil to a battery or tank farm.
The current lack of regulations of large scale renewable wind energy collection systems in Alberta has led to a dysfunctional system where landowners, municipalities, and project developers are constantly faced with uncertainty in getting projects off the planning table and onto the ground for construction. Compounded by a lack of congruency between municipal jurisdictions where there could exist 30 different sets of land use regulations among 30 rural municipalities, it lends additional confusion to applications for joint border projects. Further complicating the matter are the hierarchical levels of authority as outlined in the MGA s. 619 whereby a provincial agency such as the Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC) may over rule an MD or county bylaw, or impose bylaws upon jurisdictions that resist or decline such projects, and unfairly place the responsibility to oppose or challenge such projects at the local municipal or land owner level.
Also, landowners in Alberta have had generally positive relationships with the oil and gas industry personnel, including trained and certified land agents. There is an evident level of distrust and miscommunication with renewables agents crossing all over the province purporting surface wind lease rights for speculative projects. Conflicts are frequent between neighbours, developers and the rural municipalities. Expanding the AER existing standards for surface leases and processes for completion to renewable energy projects would be seamless and cost effective. However, land rights issues are a different matter as renewables are purely a surface rights project, to which land owners control.
2) Having the Renewable Energy Division hear “construction ready” proposals:
Currently the AUC is bogged down with many “speculative” proposals for wind and solar energy projects, not yet having received provincial funding approvals under the current government’s program for subsidy funding. This has meant HEAVY administrative review work done both at the AUC and at the municipal permitting levels for projects that may never see the light of day. One recent AUC hearing in Red Deer from November 21-23, 2017 for a project in the County of Paintearth may reach over $100,000 in expenses bore by the taxpayers for a project with no provincial funding approval which may not even be constructed. As per the utility industry and provincial “need” there is a large difference between private oil and gas industry and projects approved moving forward. This needs to be taken into account for efficiency and accountability of expensing public funds only towards relevant reviews.
The AER would be able to work co-operatively with the AUC to the extent of seeing applications after they have cleared prior regulatory and funding approvals.
3) Renewable Energy Division tasks and areas of responsibility:
Having the AER assume responsibility for renewable energy project reviews approvals would also be relatively streamlined and lend more credibility to the process by all parties involved, namely municipalities, landowners, and project proponents. The existing approval process in the AER for oil and gas projects would lend itself well to the renewables industry in providing common and well-known construction and operating guidelines, as well as governing interactions with landowners and rural municipalities. All the same requirements that the AER have in place for oil and gas approvals shall apply such as:
i) Landowner consultations, approvals and compensation factors
ii) Notification of projects to affected neighbouring landowners and municipalities where projects are to be located
iii) Development of any required amendments to the Surface Rights Act, as differentiating renewable energy developers’ rights to access lands from mineral rights developers’ rights to access lands
iv) Retain the requirements for the Alberta Electric System Operator (AESO) and AUC approvals as to the evaluation of worthiness and provincial need of proposed projects
v) Develop a standardized set of land use regulations that include:
– setback distances from roads, residences, property lines, water bodies and other environmentally sensitive areas
– land types to be used for projects on both private and Crown lands
– currently existing environmental requirements for the AUC approval
– concurrence with/approval from municipality on road use impacts
vi) Requirement of an extensive public process allowing for input from developers, land owners, and municipalities, may be in conjunction with or part of an expanded AUC process
vii) Municipalities may retain the right to opt out of allowing surface wind collection projects within their boundaries where:
– new transmission facilities are required by the project which may significantly impact current land use and values
– natural landscapes and farming practises are deemed incompatible
– wind projects would pose significant interference with existing industries, agricultural operations, or residential densities and developments in the rural areas
viii) Developers to have and maintain minimum standards and practises of emergency response plans in place for the life of the projects the same as currently licensed AER facilities
ix) Other items and requirements of the AER process for oil and gas that are applicable and desirable to the renewables industry not identified above
Currently turbine lease and access road preparations are not covered by provincial environmental standards, leaving the responsibility to the municipalities and landowners to enforce proper soil stripping conservation practises. Having competent staff already in place for oil and gas applications and qualified contractors which regularly meet or exceed provincial standards will reduce conflict in many areas at an efficient cost to the taxpayers at both the local and provincial levels.
The regulations and processes already established by the AER in matters related to assessment, taxation, and reclamation are similarly desired by many parties in the renewables arena. Currently landowners, and to an extent municipalities, are exposed to costs in the event of default that is not relevant to much of the oil and gas industry. The legal relationship between land owners and leasers leave the landowners exposed under the current lack of regulations.
Reclamation would be a non-issue with the creation of an Orphan Turbine Fund in the same manner that the oil and gas industry operates under with participation in the Orphan Well Association, and would go a long way to easing landowners’ fears that 20 years in future they could be tasked with unreclaimed concrete pedestals sticking out of their fields. Reclamation should follow a similar standard of AER site reclamation with requirements to one metre below surface. This would require a monetary contribution per turbine to be set aside into the fund upon construction to be used in the event of project failure or developer insolvency that allows for the AER or municipality to access and remediate abandoned sites.
Also, the existence of quasi-judicial agencies and tribunals such as the Surface Rights Board also lend assistance to the notion that this renewables industry would be best served within the purview of the AER. However, there needs to be clarification to the rights of both parties, as currently landowners can outright reject turbines as opposed to the mineral exploration developers’ projects. Having an established body oversee disputes with clear ground rules in advance is highly desirable.
Having a set of provincial regulations that appear to be commonly well accepted within the oil and gas industry for years would lend credibility to the AER organization in having the same level of commonly accepted renewables regulations and go a long way in reducing conflict with neighbours, municipalities and rural communities.
RMA has no active resolutions directly related to this issue.