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Alberta premier defends minister over possible conflict of interest concerns

Minister of Environment and Protected Areas Rebecca Schulz is sworn into cabinet in Edmonton, Friday, June 9, 2023. Alberta Premier Danielle Smith is defending one of her cabinet ministers over possible conflict of interest concerns.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Danielle Smith is defending one of her cabinet ministers over possible conflict of interest concerns.

Provincial records show that the husband of Environment and Protected Areas Minister Rebecca Schulz may be lobbying the government in areas that could overlap with her ministry's work.

Cole Schulz is a partner in the firm Garrison Strategies, which has been hired by the Explorers and Producers Association of Canada. 

Alberta's lobbyist registry records show the firm is trying to influence the government on how reclamation certificates for oil and gas sites are issued.

"This includes improving timeline certainty and developing new approaches for issuing reclamation certificates, variances and accounting for new technology," the firm's statement says.

It is also lobbying for the oil and gas industry to have more access to what is now protected caribou habitat, saying it seeks to "address the moratorium on tenure in caribou regions to allow better land access and investment."

In 2013, the provincial government imposed a moratorium on granting new energy leases on the ranges of the Little Smoky and A La Peche herds in northwest Alberta.

At the time, at least 95 per cent of the Little Smoky herd's range was classified as heavily damaged. Between 2009 and 2010, the province leased 84 per cent of the land in a relatively undisturbed two-township region of the Little Smoky range.

Smith said Wednesday the province's ethics commissioner has reviewed the situation and approved it.

"The ethics commissioner has looked at it, given guidance and there's no violation," she said.

Ryan Fournier, Schulz's press secretary, said the minister has lived up to her obligations.

"All MLAs are required to meet with the ethics commissioner to review their obligations under the Conflicts of Interest Act," he said in a statement. "Minister Schulz has followed this process and is fully compliant with all requirements under the act."

 No information on her husband's work is included on the minister's disclosure statement. 

Kent Ziegler, chief administrative officer for the ethics commissioner, said Schulz has been made aware of the restrictions that apply to the potential for conflict of interest.

"We are not aware of any instances at this time where Minister Schulz may have breached the Conflicts of Interest Act," he said in an email. 

Although the lobbyist registry does not show Garrison contacting Environment and Protected Areas, the issues the firm is involved with are too close for comfort, said Phillip Meintzer of the Alberta Wilderness Association.

"It definitely worries us," he said.

He points out while Garrison tries to convince Alberta Energy to open up caribou habitat for energy exploration, Environment and Protected Areas is supposed to be coming up with a protection plan for the animal, designated as threatened by both the provincial and federal governments. 

"(Garrison) is doing a lot of lobbying as it relates to the environment," he said. "(Cole Schulz) has a direct line to the minister."

New Democrat Opposition environment critic Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse called the situation an "obvious perceived conflict."

"We're hoping (Rebecca Schulz) has done her work and has a written letter from the ethics commissioner about how she can manage these perceived conflicts and she can demonstrate to Albertans that she's following the advice of the ethics commissioner."

Meintzer said the situation calls for a further look.

"There should be a formal investigation by a third party," he said. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 27, 2023.

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

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