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Alberta urged to require licensed land agents as wind and solar boom takes off

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Alberta urged to require licensed land agents as wind and solar boom takes off

Members of an Alberta Hutterite colony thought they'd struck a handsome deal when they inked a contract that promised to pay them rent simply for allowing a wind power operation on their land.

The feeling of satisfaction didn't last.

The colony later realized the arrangement allowed the operator to remove any obstacles to the wind development from a specified area — and that area included homes.

"Technically, they gave the operator the power to remove all their residences and barns," said Daryl Bennett, director of the Alberta Surface Rights Federation.

"When they saw that, they were very upset," added Bennett, who later advised the colony.

In the end, the operator didn't proceed.

But Bennett said the situation illustrates how important it is to get the details right, including who sits at the negotiating table, when something as important as land-use is at stake.

As Alberta readies itself for a renewable energy boom that'll soon see dozens of wind and solar projects added to the landscape, there are calls for the province to require renewable-energy companies to use licensed land agents — "landmen" — in their dealings with farmers and landowners.

Unlike oil and gas companies, who are required to use provincially licensed land agents, renewable companies don't have to use licensed agents for land rights acquisitions for things like wind turbines and solar panel farms.

Bennett said the province should require the renewables sector to use licensed land agents to improve consistency and credibility in the process while providing an avenue for legal recourse if things go sour.

"You shouldn't be able to have any Tom, Dick and Harry going out there and signing these things up," Bennett said.

A representative for the wind industry in Alberta said the sector uses a mix of licensed land agents and non-licensed personnel to negotiate with land owners, with each company making its own business decisions.

But he stressed the relationship the developers have with landowners and their communities are of the "utmost" importance, whether they employ licensed land agents or not.

"If you don't have buy-in from the communities, and you're not working with the communities and landowners as partners, you are going to have a difficult time getting access to the land, getting community buy-in, getting community participation," said Evan Wilson of the Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWEA).

"These decisions whether or not to use a land agent are considered by companies within the framework of 'we're here for a long time, this is a long-term relationship … a long-term partnership.' If the landowner doesn't want you there, they got a veto over whether or not you can be on their land."

Bennett and others are calling for the licensing change as Alberta embarks on a renewable energy boom that will dramatically increase the number of solar and wind projects across the province.

About $3.4 billion in revenue raised by the province's carbon levy on large emitters has been earmarked for large-scale renewable energy, bioenergy and technology.

The government has pledged to have 30 per cent of Alberta's electricity demand met with non-greenhouse gas emitting renewable energy by 2030. The most recent data on renewable generation in Alberta shows it at 9.9 per cent.

The goal is expected to result in significant renewable infrastructure development, producing a wave of negotiations between landowners and renewables companies.

But negotiating for a wind or solar lease is different from negotiating with the oil and gas sector.

Alberta's Farmers' Advocate Office notes there is no right of entry or expropriation process for a renewable energy development. Participation in a wind or solar lease is completely voluntary and contracts are negotiated bilaterally between the landowner and the renewable energy developer.

The developer may hire a licensed land agent to negotiate a lease, which means if the landowner feels they've been treated unethically, they may contact the land agents registrar.

However, renewable energy companies are under no obligation to use licensed agents.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Landmen, which represents land agents, said this is a good time to review the province's current legislation, adding it is aware renewable energy companies are acquiring surface rights in the province for wind and solar facilities.

A landman's licence requires at least two years of post-secondary education, supervised training, repeated evaluation, ethics studies and exams. They must also follow the regulations of the Land Agents Licensing Act, which sets out the rules for negotiations with landowners. Breaking the rules can result in fines, licence suspension or revocation.

"Considering the complexities involved and the rights of all parties concerned in acquiring surface access CAPL would favour a review of existing legislation regarding electrical generation to determine how the province should regulate renewable energy surface rights acquisitions," the association said in a statement to CBC News.

Alberta Environment Minister Shannon Phillips says she's open to looking at the idea of bringing land agents for renewable companies under the same umbrella as petroleum landmen, but won't commit either way until she hears from all sides.

"I wouldn't want to place landowners in a situation where I was tying their hands at all in terms of executing the best deal [during negotiations]," Phillips said.

"However, when you have what amounts to a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and essentially a boom in renewable energy, having standards, codes of practice, in place is probably erring on the side of caution in terms of consumer protection and citizen protection.

"So I can see both sides of that and willing to hear more."