By Christopher Walsh, editor
U.S. embassy cables released in May by Wikileaks show the Alberta government offered to export electricity to the United States through a massive $16 billion transmission system that officials still claim is only to meet provincial demand.
That has a land right’s advocate questioning the credibility of the three former cabinet ministers now vying for premier.
Joe Anglin, a long-time opponent of the power lines and the Wildrose Party’s candidate in Rocky Mountain House, says the cables reveal that Gary Mar, Alison Redford and Doug Horner are all complicit in the back room deal to build the mammoth electricity transmission system on the backs of Alberta ratepayers, who could see their bills spike by hundreds of dollars a year to pay for it.
“Clearly Wikileaks has confirmed what we always suspected, that this sort of stuff was going on,” Anglin said. “That is absolute evidence.”
The passing of Bill 50, which became The Electric Statutes Amendment Act back in 2009, eliminated the requirement for public needs assessments by declaring five new major transmission lines as “critical infrastructure” for the province. The bill changed the provision from having to pass regulatory approval to allowing cabinet to decide whether or not to move ahead with the project.
“What they did in that bill is get really greedy. They said ‘nobody’s looking, let’s just open up the public wallet’ and rather than one line, they approved five projects in that bill,” he said.
Doug Horner still denies any plan to export power to the U.S. through the lines. He contends the lines are being built to address the growing demand from Albertans.
“It’s never been the plan presented to cabinet; to … ship massive amounts of electricity to the United States,” he said. “We don’t have massive amounts of electricity. We’re short generation ourselves.”
But the new lines are over and above anything the province would need, says Anglin. He compares the project to expanding Highway 2 into a 32 lane highway to the west and then doubling that on the other side.
The first proposal for the transmission lines would have seen a maximum capacity of between 650-670 megawatts, but the new proposal as mandated by Bill 50 would see the line built for a minimum of 2,000 megawatts. And all of this without having to prove the need is there.
Horner says cabinet is in a better position than a regulator to determine the need.
“The requirement for needs assessment is still there: it goes to cabinet,” he said. “And frankly, we were told by a number of people that we want our elected officials making these decisions, not appointed quasi-judicial ones.
“So, cabinet can review them and that is exactly what I would do.”
He added that any power delivered to the United States would be paid for by whatever private company is transmitting it.
“Any infrastructure that’s being built for export of power to the United States, is gonna be borne by whatever company that is building that line for the power generation to go to the United States.”
When the cables first surfaced in May, Premier Ed Stelmach told CBC that discussions to export power had taken place, but insisted Alberta taxpayers would not be on the hook.
“If anybody wants to export power out of the province, the cost of that transmission is borne by the exporter, not by the consumers of Alberta. That is very clear.”
But Anglin questions what any private company would need to pay for if the infrastructure is already in place and paid for by the ratepayers of Alberta.
Private power companies, Atco and Altalink, have been given control of the lines with a guaranteed rate of return of nine per cent from the province. The massive project would see twin HDVC lines running north to south through the Rimbey area to the west and an area to the east . There would also be a line going to Fort MacMurray from Edmonton, which would transmit excess power generated by oil sands companies, all of it paid for by electricity ratepayers of the province.
“None of that is of any use whatsoever to the public or to industry unless you build the remainder of the 10 year plan, which is all the lines leaving the province,” Anglin said.
Wikileaks cables reveal that in 2003, then energy minister Murray Smith, pledged to supply the U.S. with power generated from oil sands plants. In comments attributed to U.S. Ambassador Paul Cellucci in one of the cables, Cellucci says, “Smith and others also want to make sure that the USG (United States Government) is aware that over time there will be tremendous electricity co-generation available as a result of the huge thermal needs of the oil sands refining process. This could over time make significant new electricity exports available to the United States….”
The cables added, “…At least for now there is limited capacity to move this west and then south through British Columbia and on to our pacific northwest. There is almost no capacity to move it south into the U.S. rocky mountain states and markets further afield.
“Albertans see this as a promising issue for future provincial-state, Washington-Ottawa and regulator to regulator coordination.”
Reports indicate it was shortly after these comments that the Alberta government changed financing for new transmission lines from a split between public and private money to 100 per cent ratepayer-funded.
Another U.S. Embassy cable from 2008 suggested energy created by oil sands companies through natural gas-fired co-generation facilities that produce more power for bitumen production than they need could result in, ” perhaps even changing the province’s traditional status from small net importer of power to net exporter if transmission capacity in Montana and Wyoming can be expanded.”
The cable, which was categorized as “sensitive”, continues by suggesting the only thing stopping the plan is the distance and the infrastructure.
“Moreover, some in Alberta are seriously considering use of nuclear reactors to fuel bitumen extraction, which could boost the amount of power co-generated in this process,” the document stated. “Alberta has gone much further than other provinces in introducing competition to its electric power market. Several transmission investments are contemplated, including two which are cross-border: the likely-to-be-completed Montana Alberta Tie (240 kilovolts over 346 kilometers) and the ambitious Northern Lights project from the oilsands to Oregon (500 kilovolts over 1743 km), with a projected in-service date of 2012.”
The issue then resurfaced in 2009, shortly before Bill 50 was passed, when then-CEO of Enmax, Gary Holden, accused the Stelmach government of secret deals with industry to subvert the regulatory process and build billions of dollars worth of transmission lines at the public’s expense.
Holden said then the province was moving ahead with the lines despite failing to provide evidence that it was “critical infrastructure”. He added he was told the the project would proceed anyway. He asked then-justice minister Alison Redford to investigate. She refused.
Redford was not available for comment.
Anglin says he’s shocked the minister of justice would refuse to investigate credible claims of impropriety on the government’s part.
“When a guy like Gary Holden, who has some credibility because he is the CEO of an inside member of the elite, so to speak, … when he gives a first-hand statement saying these secret deals are going on and they offered secret deals to him, that alone warrants a look,” he said.
Gary Mar, a former cabinet minister in the Klein government and more recently Alberta’s Washington representative, did not return repeated phone calls to speak on the story. He has stated during the campaign that he would review the project if elected.
“There is absolutely no question that Mar would have known, not only from the fact that he was in Washington, but he was on the inside of cabinet when this stuff was first brought,” Anglin said.
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