Trudeau offers new money to oil patch, but rejects calls to suspend climate action over COVID-19

Click to play video: 'Alberta energy companies get ‘lifeline’ from feds'
Alberta energy companies get ‘lifeline’ from feds
WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a trio of measures designed to help Canada's energy industry. While the billions of dollars in measures will help, companies like Essential Energy Services still aren't out of the woods. Adam Toy reports – Apr 17, 2020

Editor’s note: This article was updated at 12:56 p.m. ET on April 17, 2020 with new comments made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. It was updated again at 4:52 p.m. ET with new comments made by Alberta Environment Minister Jason Nixon and from CAPP president Tim McMillan.

Canada’s largest oil and gas lobby group says the federal government should consider suspending dozens of environmental regulations, laws and policies due to the economic and public health crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) made the request in a leaked 13-page letter, obtained by Global News.

The industry lobby group sent the memo on March 27 to federal Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan and seven other members of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet, urging the government to suspend several laws that require oil and gas companies to do some field inspections and basic monitoring of pollution.

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Click to play video: 'Coronavirus outbreak: Federal money to clean up orphaned wells in Alberta is a good start: Nixon'
Coronavirus outbreak: Federal money to clean up orphaned wells in Alberta is a good start: Nixon

This could include monitoring of impacts of job sites on migratory birds, the testing of pollution from stacks or inspections of activities that could cause harm to fisheries in bodies of water.

Overall, the letter makes more than 30 requests, ranging from delaying plans for a law that would protect Indigenous rights, delaying requirements to report on lobbying activity until the end of July, and delaying Canada’s plans to fight climate change.

The lobby group sent the letter after meeting with O’Regan and other senior government officials on March 19 and 26.

“The openness to dialogue you and colleagues in cabinet have shown since the beginning of this crisis has been greatly appreciated,” said the letter, signed by CAPP president Tim McMillan.

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At a news conference on Friday, Trudeau announced more than $2 billion in new financial support for oil and gas companies in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan to help them hire workers to clean up contaminated sites and to help them meet new federal standards that require a reduction in methane emissions.

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But the prime minister rejected CAPP’s calls for the government to delay action on climate change.

“Just because we’re in one crisis right now doesn’t mean we can forget about the other one the climate crisis that we are also facing as a world and as a country,” Trudeau told reporters.

Trudeau said the government was offering financial support to help companies meet the new methane standards, because it recognized that some companies would struggle to meet the targets in the current context and need help staying on track with policies needed to protect future generations.

“This is something that Canadians understand that we need to continue to move forward, but we need to help people in different ways as we move forward,” Trudeau said.

Click to play video: 'Oil lobby asks federal government to suspend environmental, lobbying laws due to COVID-19'
Oil lobby asks federal government to suspend environmental, lobbying laws due to COVID-19

The COVID-19 crisis has had a devastating economic impact on Canada’s oil and gas industry as global oil prices plummeted due to reduced demand.

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The problems were compounded by a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia that drove Western Canadian oil prices to record low levels that threaten the survival of many Canadian companies, along with tens of thousands of jobs.

McMillan wrote that companies had cut capital spending by $6 billion in recent weeks, but were still trying to maintain operations to deliver essential services to Canadians.

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However, it was not immediately clear how many of the lobby group’s proposals, which included delaying increases on the price of carbon pollution in 2021 and 2022, were actually related to challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This has led one critic to suggest that CAPP was trying to take advantage of the situation.

Environmental Defence, a Toronto-based conservation group, says someone leaked a copy of the memo to one of their staffers on Wednesday and they were shocked by what they saw, warning that many of the proposals would directly affect the health and safety of Canadians, including clean air and clean water.

“We were taken aback,” said Dale Marshall, national climate program manager at Environmental Defence, in an interview.

“It was pretty egregious with all of the demands that were made in there. It’s essentially a crass attempt to exploit the global pandemic to ram through not only all of the demands the oil industry has been making for a while, but to go even further and request things that would never be asked for unless we were in a global health crisis.”

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Marshall also questioned why CAPP asked the government in the letter to allow industry to delay the reporting of their lobbying activity until the end of July.

“It’s obviously anti-democratic, but also pretty bold to be asking governments for that kind of secrecy,” Marshall said.

The federal lobbying registry allows Canadians to see how many times someone has lobbied the government about an issue. In March, it shows that CAPP lobbied senior government officials and some Opposition parliamentarians 33 times, including 30 times after the World Health Organization declared that there was a global COVID-19 pandemic.

The March 19 and 26 meetings with Minister O’Regan also appear on the federal registry as lobbying activities.

In the letter, McMillan said it was “critical” for the government to adopt a “flexible approach to compliance for certain low risk regulatory requirements.”

“In addition to the flexibility in existing regulations, CAPP also recommends that, during this time of crisis, governments adopt a do no harm principle with respect to regulations and the costs they impose on industry,” McMillan wrote.

The letter did not specify exactly what harm would be caused if the government continued taking action on climate change and maintained existing regulations to control air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and require the monitoring of industrial stacks and water pollution.

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Monique Dubé, a scientist who was executive director of the environmental monitoring and science division of Alberta Environment and Parks up until January 2020, said that she believed it was reasonable to suspend some reporting and auditing requirements due to the crisis. But she said she was concerned about proposals to suspend monitoring and inspections or to revisit other policies and rules that she said were unrelated to COVID-19.

“Deferring any climate change policies, regulations, and legislation requires very careful thought, given COVID has taught us that a changing environment has consequences,” said Dubé, who was also leading a government oilsands monitoring program up until January and was previously the chief environmental scientist at the Alberta Energy Regulator from 2014 to 2017.

Scientists and governments around the world have agreed that climate change is another important issue that, like COVID-19, could have catastrophic consequences if countries don’t do more to mitigate the problem.

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McMillan’s letter also urged the government to delay doing a strategic assessment of climate change and also to delay introducing legislation in support of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), claiming that it would not be possible to proceed with consultations on these issues.

“To ensure alignment with the do no harm principle there will need to be fulsome understanding of how some key components of UNDRIP will work with economic recovery of Canada,” said the CAPP memo.

McMillan added that the oil and gas industry has been taking steps to minimize person-to-person contact at job sites to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“To effectively implement these practices, CAPP’s member companies have eliminated any non-essential activities and personnel at their operational facilities in order to focus on those critical activities required to maintain the safe operation of these essential services and protect the health and safety of its workers,” he wrote.

A spokesperson for the federal natural resources minister declined to answer questions about the specific requests made by CAPP, but said that the government was “deeply concerned about the impact COVID-19 and global oil price instability are having on thousands of workers in our energy sector.

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“Our government has been steadfast in our support for the oil and gas sector and we will continue to strongly advocate on their behalf,” said Minister O’Regan’s press secretary Ian Cameron.

Alberta Environment Minister Jason Nixon told The West Block‘s Mercedes Stephenson that his own government was trying to limit some paperwork associated with reporting and monitoring.

“But we are not making any decision that would stop monitoring from taking place in real time and our ability to understand what’s taking place in the environment,” Nixon said in an interview that was scheduled to be airing on April 19.

“We do have a large industry that is facing COVID-19 with a major workforce and some of the reporting requirements are significant and so requiring them to continue to monitor the environment but being able to give a little bit of help on the administrative process in the short term seems entirely reasonable to me…. We do hope the federal government will help support that going forward.”

Dubé, the former Alberta public servant who was leading the oilsands monitoring program, said this approach could work as long as the monitoring continued.

“It must also be recognized that during these times where more skeleton crews are on site operating, this is often the time when operational upsets happen,” she said. “So due diligence is critical.”

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In a statement released on Friday, CAPP said it appreciated Trudeau’s new announcements, explaining that the new federal measures would protect 10,000 jobs.

“CAPP will continue to talk with all levels of government to ensure adequate support is in place to help businesses and jobs survive this unprecedented economic crisis,” McMillan said in the statement. “Survival of the energy sector will be crucial to Canada’s economic recovery.”

CAPP didn’t respond to questions from Global News about the criticism that the lobby group made requests in its March 27 letter that were unrelated to the COVID-19 crisis.

The lobby group also sent copies of the letter to Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, Finance Minister Bill Morneau, Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos, Innovation Science and Industry Minister Navdeep Bains, Fisheries, Oceans and Canadian Coast Guard Minister Bernadette Jordan, Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, and Transport Minister Marc Garneau.

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