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Alberta NDP decries contract for government supporter to review energy regulator

EDMONTON — Alberta's Opposition New Democrats are condemning another sole-source contract handed out to a close associate of the United Conservative Party government.
Former Alberta justice minister Kathleen Ganley speaks at a press conference in Edmonton on Nov. 16, 2017. Alberta's Opposition New Democrats are condemning another sole-source contract handed out to a close associate of the United Conservative Party government. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

EDMONTON — Alberta's Opposition New Democrats are condemning another sole-source contract handed out to a close associate of the United Conservative Party government.

The party has asked the province's auditor to investigate several such contracts awarded to what it calls "partisan supporters of the premier."

A recently released document shows David Yager, a longtime oilpatch executive, journalist and conservative activist, is being paid $70,000 to review the Alberta Energy Regulator. The information is contained in government disclosure statements that are released quarterly.

The disclosure reveals little about what Yager has been asked to review. It refers to a "review" of the regulator — one of Alberta's most important public bodies — and gives an end date of February.

James Snell, spokesman for Alberta Energy Minister Brian Jean, said all rules were followed in awarding Yager the contract.

"David Yager is a nationally recognized energy policy expert," he said in an email. 

Yager did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the regulator said it had no comment.

It's the second recent sole-source for Yager, who also worked on a report on Alberta's energy future — a report that has never been released.

Rules posted on the government's website say sole-source contracts can be issuedwhen "it can be demonstrated that only one supplier is able to meet the requirements of a procurement." 

NDP critic Kathleen Ganley questioned Thursday whether that rule applied in this case.

"In a province full of energy experts, it leaves you to wonder what the work is, if the outcome is predetermined."

Snell said Yager's previous report made him a natural choice for the new one.

"His (earlier) report identified issues at the (regulator) which closely matched items that the (regulator) thought needed attention."

Ganley said there has been no information on what the review is to consider or on the process for public input. The regulator adjudicates some of the most wide-ranging and contentious issues in the province, including coal mining, oilpatch cleanup and tailings pond management.

Ganley called Yager a conservative "partisan."

Yager's website lists a long history of involvement in conservative politics, including fundraising for the former Wildrose Party, running as a candidate for the Wildrose, supporting its merger with Alberta's Progressive Conservatives to form thenow-governing UCP and advising Jean.

Yager has claimed to have helped convince Premier Danielle Smith to enter politics. He also once compared the former New Democrat government to a terminal disease. 

"What it looks like is the premier hired an insider to do a report to give her the answer she wanted," Ganley said. "It's incredibly troubling."

The New Democrats have asked the auditor general to examine the Yager contract and two other sole-source contracts. They say those contracts, worth $142,000 for digital media services, were given to a company run by Smith's former campaign manager.

Although those contracts were justified as "an unforeseeable situation of emergency," the NDP asks in a letter to the auditor general what situation involving media planning would be urgent enough to require the immediate spending of public money.   

In an article written in 2019, Yager laid out his vision for a revamped regulator.

"That the AER should ensure the industry cleans up after itself is within its mandate," he wrote. "How it accomplishes this must be re-examined."

Yager said court rulings that put environmental liabilities ahead of creditors during bankruptcy have squeezed energy companies. 

"Troubled companies can’t borrow to stay onside with (the regulator's) decommissioning deposits," he wrote. "Is this what the (regulator) should be doing, when many companies are experiencing financial difficulties?"

Yager argued the regulator's role has expanded to include environmental and social questions. Those questions should be decided elsewhere, he wrote.

"Alberta’s energy regulator was not created to make political decisions, nor should it be permitted to do so." 

He said industry critics are uncompromising and that attempts to find middle ground are doomed to fail. 

"While the stated mandate is not to say, 'No,' the increasingly long, costly, convoluted and uncertain path to 'Yes' makes an agency review, and possibly an overhaul, essential."

Ganley said any review of the regulator must not only be conducted in public, it must be released publicly. 

"The (regulator) does some pretty important things."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 23, 2023.

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press