AER’s Expertise And Experience Helps To Build A Regulatory System That Will Enable The Energy Transition, Says Pushor

Laurie Pushor, AER

In the DOB’s Engaging with our Future leadership series, Bill Whitelaw, managing director of Sustainability and Strategy at geoLOGIC systems ltd., sits down with some of the best and brightest CEOs in the industry to unpack the issues surrounding the energy transition and what kind of leadership is needed.

Today, a conversation with Laurie Pushor, president and CEO of the Alberta Energy Regulator.

Regulators regulate. Regulators collaborate. Regulators innovate.

Regulators also balance.

It’s with those balancing skills they also lead — in ways that may not be so apparent.

As the resource interface between citizens and industry, the Alberta Energy Regulator balances environmental stewardship and conservation and working with the energy industry, which produces economic benefits that accrue to Albertans.

Since becoming the AER’s president and chief executive officer in 2020, Laurie Pushor has been focused on positioning the organization to move in lockstep with key forces driving “energy transition” dynamics, while not losing sight of how to keep existing regulatory imperatives working effectively.

Pushor took charge of an organization that had seen its share of tumultuous change, ranging from significant staffing and budget cuts to figuring out how to regulate during a world-wide pandemic to dealing with many exciting, but untested, next-generation energy innovations.

Question: Much happens in a day to challenge a leader. Often, it is so busy that the most important things surface at the end of the day. What was on your mind when you left the office last night?

Answer: “At the end of the day yesterday, I was reflecting on this question: Are we resourcing the AER team as effectively as we need to, and are they getting what they need to be successful?

We’ve been through a remarkable period of change that included some restructuring but also many strong efficiency gains. So, we need to ask if we have the right resources, and are they where they need to be, to allow us to stabilize and secure those efficiencies. (As leaders) we spend a lot of time thinking through these questions.”

Q: Even in ‘down’ times, the drill bit doesn’t stop turning and so the regulatory efforts must continue even in disadvantaged circumstances like COVID pandemics. What have you seen that inspired you in terms of how AER staff stepped up and lead?

A: “It’s been remarkable to watch. We didn't miss a beat. People picked up their laptops and we all figured it out on the go. When I started, I expected, given all the change and turmoil, to spend a fair bit of energy on calming the waters, and getting everybody motivated and feeling good about things. But I was very impressed with how dedicated the team is and how focused they are on doing their jobs. And so I pivoted to thinking about change, and are we doing what we need to support everyone. That’s also indicative of the industry. If you want someone to solve a problem, put it in front of a couple folks in the oil industry in Alberta, and they will find a way to fix it and keep things moving. The AER is like that as well. We’ve stepped up and kept things moving.”

Q: ESG and innovation forces are moving rapidly throughout the sector. Is there a leadership role for the regulator as industry responds to these forces — for example, in terms of emissions management efforts?

A: “I think there are two things that are a priority for us as a regulator. First, is to ensure that whatever innovation is happening is being done within expectations and to facilitate those innovations in an efficient way that allows us to keep pace with our industry’s innovation agenda. As a regulator, we need to find tools and structures that allow us to make room for those innovation projects to be piloted. When we get that right, I think we can try to keep up with industry.

“The second aspect is being the purveyor of fact. So, what is the (new) performance we monitor? We gather information. We gather data. And we’re upgrading our systems to present that information in a more user-friendly and efficient way. So when people want to know about methane emissions, for example, they should be able to come to our site, see it, access it in detail and be confident that it’s an accurate reflection of what’s going on out there.”

Q: Things are changing in the Basin and Alberta is a hotspot of innovation. We are looking afresh at our geology to anticipate opportunities around carbon capture and pore space. What is the regulator’s leadership role in ensuring these new frontiers are managed effectively in the public interest?

A: The AER has been regulating aspects of conventional CO2 sequestration for more than 40 years. We have a team of remarkably bright and talented people with existing expertise to leverage and update our existing regulatory framework to include the evolution of carbon capture and utilization. This will enhance Alberta’s leadership in reducing emissions.

In addition to carbon capture, we've been asked by the Government of Alberta to regulate other resources such as geothermal and critical and rare earth minerals. And we’ll do this within our mandate of protecting public safety and the environment.

We have a wealth of expertise to rely on not only through the AER but also through the Alberta Geological Survey. The AER has been in the regulation business, in some iteration, for more than 80 years, while AGS has been studying geoscience in Alberta for more than a century.

Q: The AER regulates on behalf of the public: the citizens who actually own the molecules and the data … and live in the areas affected by energy development. What are their leadership expectations?

A: “Albertans own the resource. We are accountable to them first and foremost, beyond anyone else. The AER’s mandate is to ensure the safe, efficient, orderly, and environmentally responsible development of oil, oilsands, natural gas, and coal resources over their entire life cycle. There’s a tension and a balance that will always be there.

Our mandate doesn’t say block development, nor does it say let it run unfettered. It says, ‘Figure out the right way to do this so that we can enjoy our lives and environment safely here in Alberta and enjoy the benefits that these resources might afford us.’

If Albertans see an AER truck go by, they should feel good and say, ‘They’re on the job. They're doing our business.’”

Q:  If we tie that leadership and trust in the regulator back to innovation again in the context of energy transition, as we explore different opportunities such as geothermal development, how does the regulator lead in times of rapid change? Is there leadership in co-learning?

A: “As a regulator, we need to provide confidence that we understand what needs to be uniquely regulated. We need to provide clarity for those looking to develop geothermal or other resources. The Government of Alberta has provided funding to advance geothermal and mineral regulations. We need to give Albertans confidence that there are rules, and industry will be held to account to perform at the level Albertans would expect. We also need to give industry some sense of how it can operate and what will be expected of them along the way.

We have frameworks that allow us to develop a pilot project with rules unique to that specific project. This allows the company and the regulator to learn together as we watch the performance of that project. We identify performance standards that need to be followed and then build the (regulatory) structures around the new technology. We’ve used that structured approach on some geothermal projects and now we’re busy developing the geothermal regulatory structure in detail. As a result, we’re all clear on expectations, processes and rules.”

Q: In the context of leadership, how does the regulator balance pressures to act on areas like asset retirement (public pressure) when emissions, water and biodiversity are also important? In other words, (how does it address) the integrity of the entire ecosystem?

A: “This has been at the core of our discussions. Recently, we significantly enhanced our ability to provide oversight of a company’s performance of cleanup and reclamation. It’s a high priority for Albertans, and industry, who want to see significant progress on it. At the same time, we are not losing sight of the other day-to-day work. We need to constantly balance our resources. We focus a lot of our efforts on our core business and tend to profile the change initiatives. Leadership is about effectively striking that balance.”

Q: What do you think about leadership vis-a-vis data science and digital transformation?

A: “We’re moving to a new three-year rolling strategic plan to avoid reinventing a strategy every year, or building a five-year plan, and then not thinking strategically again for five years. And a key part of our strategy will focus on data. Being data informed is something we do, but we’re just scratching the surface in terms of the data we have, the data we share, and how we, and others, can use and learn from that data. The wealth of data is overwhelming at times. It’s a huge opportunity that we are excited to dig into.

Q: Regulators have traditionally operated in a more structured fashion, but the AER seems to be contemplating some new leadership innovations at the individual level.

A: “There are things I came to understand quickly at the AER. The AER had been run in a closely controlled environment with central command and control. We’ve been working hard over the last year to move to more empowerment and decentralization — letting our team of technical experts do their jobs and letting them do them well. It’s not as simple as just saying, ‘Okay, I'm stepping out of the way.’ They need the supports, and they need to know the ground rules in terms of what latitude they have and what latitude they don’t have. We are encouraging our employees to be inventive and innovative and find a solid path forward through good collaboration and communication.”

Q: To celebrate its anniversary some years ago, the AER published a book called The Steward. It was an interesting choice of words as there is a direct linkage — particularly in an energy transition context — between stewardship and leadership when thinking about Indigenous partnerships.

“Let me reflect on the work we’re doing to better understand Indigenous ways of knowing and Indigenous perspectives on the landscape. We have rolled out required Indigenous knowledge training for all staff and leaders so there is a common level of understanding in this area.

We are using different opportunities to reach out to communities to share who we are and to better understand their interests. Plus, we are talking to Elders about reconciliation, and how we can reflect it in how we do things.

There’s much to be learned, and you don’t have to be the best-informed historian to understand that there must be better ways to engage in a meaningful and authentic way. I don’t want to be one of those groups that goes out and makes a bunch of promises and then doesn’t follow through. We need to build relationships in a meaningful way and ensure communication is effective and ongoing.

Over years of conversations with communities, we have learned that Indigenous peoples stand behind their role as environmental stewards. But what has been challenging is finding ways to bring our different areas of knowledge together so we can address the things that matter to us most. Then we mutually agree on what we are going do and what changes we’re going to make along the way.

There are things we don’t know and stepping back and listening a bit more thoughtfully to some of those traditional ways of knowing and traditional understanding of the way humans have interacted with the land for centuries might serve us well. We need to find opportunities to create space (to bring) Indigenous knowledge into our work and learn from the richness that it can provide to our understanding of how development impacts their way of life, and how Indigenous communities may choose to be included in energy development.”

Q: In the context of energy transition, what’s needed from a leadership dynamic to ensure we have sufficient human capital?

A: “I have been privileged to work with some remarkable young people: bright, high-performing folks. They’re remarkably engaged. I have come to appreciate that they need — they really crave — a purpose and a meaningful place to work. You can’t sit them at a desk like it happened 40 years ago and tell them ‘Do this until I tell you to stop.’

If you can give them room to set their own course and make a meaningful contribution, good things will happen. At the AER, we have a lot of young people who are super-motivated — it makes me so optimistic about the future.”

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