Sturgeon County takes position against Heartland Transmission Line

By Stephen Dafoe

Sturgeon County – County Council came out in a 4-3 vote to oppose the Heartland Transmission Line project Tuesday afternoon, their first real statement against the controversial double circuit 500kV transmission line project since Alberta Utility Commission (AUC) hearings began this past spring.

After some procedural debate on where to discuss the matter, Council opted to move in camera early Tuesday afternoon. On their return to the public portion of the meeting, Division 1 Councillor Don McGeachy moved: “That County Council having reviewed the evidence presented at the recent Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC) Heartland Transmission Line Hearings have concluded that the social and economic costs to the County, the Heartland and the Province greatly exceed the benefits. Accordingly, Sturgeon County Council opposes the construction of the Heartland Transmission Line as proposed.”

The motion was carried 4-3 with Mayor Don Rigney voting in favour of the motion along with councilors Karen Shaw, David Kluthe and McGeachy. Councillors Tom Flynn, Joe Milligan and Ken McGillis voted in opposition to the motion.

Although Mayor Rigney has been public in his opposition to the Heartland Transmission Project, council has taken no real position publicly on the matter other than to adopt a set of neutral key message points to residents and stakeholders at its Nov. 23, 2010 meeting. That position heading into the hearings was that Sturgeon County recognized the need for safe, secure and affordable electricity supply in order to meet Alberta’s present and future needs, but it shouldn’t jeopardize the viability of current or future commercial and industrial interests.

Tuesday’s post-AUC hearing statement was a stark contrast to the message crafted and adopted Nov. 23.

“In order to participate in the process, we felt – and perhaps somewhat naïvely – that we, to be effective, needed to take a position that supported other positions,” McGeachy explained of Sturgeon County’s AUC hearing position. “We were coached by our consultants that if we went in with only one principle and that was based solely on need for projections that it would be dismissed by the AUC. If the only position that anyone took was we don’t need it, the whole process was flawed from the start. Well, ultimately, the process is flawed because the AUC was not able to hear, by mandate, what was on everyone’s mind.”

McGeachy said the County’s current position aligns with that of most Sturgeon County residents. “The majority of our residents were completely against this from the get go,” he said. “In order to effectively represent them, we felt we had to support their position. Although late in the game, it’s still the correct course of action.”

The councillor said the reason they did not go into the hearings carrying the direct message of the majority of County residents was a philosophical belief that if they were not at the table they would be on the menu. “We felt that in order to be at the table and to effectively get the information, and to understand the position and the direction fully, we had to take a somewhat neutral stance in order to get the best value for our dollar throughout the process,” McGeachy explained, noting that while taking the neutral stance in the hearings the County was financially supporting RETA and the Sturgeon Blueline Group, two anti-power line organizations. “All along we’ve been supporting that position. We’re somewhat constrained by the rules laid down by the AUC and by the province. In order to participate, we felt the best course of action was to be at the table and to argue the points that will ultimately benefit Sturgeon County residents: setbacks, compensation, routing, identification of TUC [transportation / utility corridor]. Having the province and AUC stick to that instead of criss-crossing and zigzagging lines all over the County.”

McGeachy said he has no doubt the power lines will be built. “They are going to build power lines – they are going to build them in Sturgeon County,” he said. “To get the best results for our residents is the position we took because to go in with a hardnosed do or die attitude – we felt was not the best course of action. We take it very seriously spending residents’ money to represent them. We thought – and we still do – that there was excellent work done by the consultants, our lawyers and our administration to present the logical but non-confrontational position.”

Considers power lines an overbuild situation

McGeachy explained there were many factors raised during the hearing that lead to Tuesday’s motion of opposition, but he felt evidence presented by the government side in the hearings was based on projections from up to 10 years ago. “The overall evidence is that it’s a massive overbuild, and it was based on $15 a gigajoule prices of natural gas versus coal,” McGeachy said, adding he felt wind and solar were both expensive and unreliable in peak demands. “The line loss from the transmission of wind, where it’s located in the province to the destination – basically you get none of that by the time it gets to where it’s needed.”

The councillor’s position on lack of need is one Sturgeon County Mayor Don Rigney agrees with. “We feel quite strongly that the costs exceed the benefits because it’s going to result in a massive increase in electrical costs,” the mayor said, adding he has been questioned about his position because of the perceived economic benefits of the power lines. “All indications are we’ll have the highest or second highest cost of electricity in Canada. How do we increase our assessment with this massive overbuild when there appears to be a much cheaper and more efficient source at hand through generating extra load with natural gas.”

Like his council colleague, the mayor has no reservations on whether or not the Heartland Transmission Line will go ahead, and acknowledged Tuesday’s motion was largely symbolic. “We just felt we had to do this and make it clear, and I think position ourselves with going ahead with the ATCO line,” Rigney said, noting the County will be participating in that hearing as well.

The mayor said he believes the AUC is set to make their decision Sept. 19.

Councillor opposed

While Rigney, Kluthe, Shaw and McGeachy felt Tuesday’s position was the right thing to do, Councillor Tom Flynn was among those in strong disagreement with his council colleagues.

“My concern was we put out some principles and put those forward,” Flynn said, noting those principles were brought to the AUC hearings to achieve the best result for Sturgeon County. “I think we had the responsibility to have a response that matched our intercession with the AUC. This response doesn’t agree with that and it goes right after the government talking about the need which the government indicated wasn’t what they wanted.”

Councillor Flynn said when he supported an intervention in the back of his mind the desire was to get the best result for the residents of Sturgeon County with respect to alignment, utility corridors and compensation for residents. “That was very important, and I think our intercession did a pretty good job of that,” Flynn said. “We put that at risk by making this statement. I didn’t feel it was the right thing for us to do.”

The councillor explained he felt it was Sturgeon County’s responsibility to be consistent with its messages, something he said changed yesterday with the council vote. “We did a lot of good towards the whole picture of transmission in Alberta with what was presented at the hearings,” he said. “I’m not just sure it’s as credible as it was the day before yesterday. We’re not being consistent with our message to the public and I think we could have prepared a much better response to the conclusions that were there.”

Flynn explained during the intercession the County had asked for greater than 200 metre right of ways and a lot of other things in the interest of county property owners. “We made great progress in all of those things, but I’m not just comfortable that we made the right move,” Flynn said with respect to Tuesday’s 4-3 council vote.

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