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On the Hot Seat: Alberta Energy Regulator CEO Laurie Pushor

A toxic oilsands leak long stayed secret and Parliament wants to know why. Critics aren’t surprised.

Charles Rusnell 23 Mar 2023TheTyee.ca

Charles Rusnell is an independent investigative reporter based in Edmonton.

Former Saskatchewan NDP MLA Cathy Sproule is not surprised that Laurie Pushor, the CEO of the Alberta Energy Regulator, is again at the centre of a major scandal.

The House of Commons environment committee voted unanimously on Monday to summon Pushor and Imperial Oil CEO Brad Corson to Ottawa to explain why they failed to disclose a toxic leak from the Kearl oilsands site.

As has been widely reported, including internationally, water containing dangerous levels of arsenic, dissolved metals and hydrocarbons has been seeping into Crown lands and waterways north of Fort McMurray, Alberta, since May.

For reasons still unexplained, Imperial Oil and the AER failed to inform anyone until a separate incident at Kearl spilled 5.3 million litres of wastewater.

Back in April 2020, Sproule told CBC it was a bad idea for Alberta to appoint Pushor as CEO of the Alberta Energy Regulator.

Pushor, a former senior Saskatchewan Party ministerial staffer, had been a central figure in a government land-deal scandal that cost taxpayers millions of dollars, was the subject of a scathing audit, and prompted an RCMP investigation.

A former federal government lawyer, Sproule was the NDP’s point person on the Global Transportation Hub scandal and she said the high smell that continued to waft from Pushor’s involvement should have disqualified him from leading the AER.

Both Sproule and then-Alberta NDP energy critic Irfan Sabir said Pushor’s past would make it difficult for the AER to restore its own reputation, which had been seriously damaged by a scandal involving self-dealing and lavish expenses by some of its now-former senior managers.

And now, the revelation that the AER failed to disclose a toxic leak for months has made international headlines and has further undermined the AER’s already shaky reputation.

“It seems to me I was right,” Sproule said in a phone interview Wednesday from her Saskatoon home.

“If he is not doing his job properly now, and not protecting Alberta citizens, and First Nations' lands, then what can I say? I told you so.”

In an emailed statement, an AER spokesperson said Pushor couldn’t agree to an interview because there is “an active investigation” in relation to the leak. The spokesperson said the AER’s board continued to support Pushor.

Sabir told the CBC in April that Pushor was clearly not the right person to lead the AER as it attempted to reform its governance and rehabilitate its image. He speculated the AER would have to spend time “defending this person, defending their choice.”

But in fact, Sonya Savage, the province’s former energy minister, has not defended Pushor or the AER. She has instead studiously maintained radio silence, including failing to respond to an interview request Wednesday from The Tyee.

Richard Feehan, the Alberta NDP’s Indigenous relations critic, said whichever party forms the next government in Alberta — the election is in May — must conduct a complete review of the AER’s practices, its policies and its leadership, including governance by the AER’s board.

“Trust in the AER carrying out their mandate is, I think, fairly low in the province of Alberta; certainly it is low within the Indigenous communities,” Feehan said.

“It is time that somebody took a look at that and I think that is on the minister right now and if the minister doesn't do it, certainly, we will try to clean things up when we get in.”

Pushor was a key player in a years-long Saskatchewan controversy involving the provincially owned Global Transportation Hub near Regina.

CBC News revealed that in 2014, the GTH bought 204 acres of land from a Regina developer for far more than three times its appraised value. The developer was a supporter of the Saskatchewan Party.

That transaction produced a $5-million profit for the developer’s company. A few days later, the GTH sold some of that land to the Saskatchewan Ministry of Highways for less than half the price it had paid.

Pushor, then senior advisor and chief of staff to then-GTH minister Bill Boyd, negotiated the initial land deal with the Regina developer.

Boyd defended the deal. He claimed land prices were increasing and acquiring the land was critical for a planned highway bypass.

But Saskatchewan's provincial auditor confirmed the GTH had paid too much for the land and failed to have appropriate policies in place.

The auditor found no evidence of fraud, wrongdoing or conflict of interest, although the audit’s scope did not allow her to interview the developer or any other third parties.

The RCMP conducted a two-year investigation but Manitoba prosecutors determined no charges should be laid.

Pushor left his position as Boyd's advisor in 2014, immediately became Boyd’s assistant deputy minister and then deputy minister of the economy. In March 2018 Pushor became deputy minister for energy and resources, a position he held until just before he was hired as the CEO of the AER based on what the Alberta government said was an “exhaustive search.”

The ruling Saskatchewan Party repeatedly blocked opposition attempts to call Pushor and others to testify before the province's public accounts committee about their roles in the scandal.

At the time of his hiring, the AER said Pushor had told them about the GTH scandal and they were satisfied that Pushor had been exonerated by a thorough investigation.

If you have any information for this story, or information for another story, please contact Charles Rusnell in confidence via email.  [Tyee]

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