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Alberta First Nations worried by suspension of oilsands environmental monitoring

Alberta Energy Regulator suspends some environmental requirements
WATCH (May 6): Four major companies working in Alberta's oilsands have been allowed to suspend some environmental monitoring. The Alberta energy regulator says the decision was made to ensure safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, but as provincial affairs reporter tom Vernon explains, there are concerns about what this might mean for the environment.

The leader of a First Nation surrounded by oilsands development is frustrated by the Alberta Energy Regulator’s decision to suspend a wide array of environmental reporting requirements for oilsands companies.

“We are surprised and disappointed there was no effort to consult us on this decision,” said a release from Mel Grandjamb, head of the Fort McKay First Nation.

Grandjamb points out the regulator’s new head, Laurie Pushor, has emphasized in recent interviews that he wants to rebuild trust in the agency and improve its relations with bands.

“It is unfortunate that aspiration has not translated into actually talking to those communities deeply affected by AER decisions,” he wrote.

Fort McKay, located north of Fort McMurray in the heart of the oilsands, is surrounded on three sides by development. Its concerns about those impacts are long-standing.

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READ MORE: Alberta suspends some environmental monitoring at 16 oilsands projects due to COVID-19

In a series of decisions released earlier this week, the regulator relieved four oilsands major companies of the responsibility to meet environmental monitoring conditions in their licences to operate.

Conditions suspended include on-site monitoring studies under the Fort McKay Air Quality and Odours Project. Odour assessment and communication protocols already in place are to remain.

Other exemptions include most monitoring of ground and surface water, unless it enters the environment. Almost all wildlife and bird monitoring, often done by remote cameras, is suspended, as is testing for leaks of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

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Wetlands monitoring and research is gone. Water that escapes from storm ponds no longer must be tested.

Some programs are to resume by the end of September, but most have no restart date.

Fort McKay First Nation asks appeal court to turn down oilsands project
Fort McKay First Nation asks appeal court to turn down oilsands project

The regulator says the move was made to protect energy workers from COVID-19.

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“We made requests to the AER to postpone some monitoring in order to protect workers and the public from COVID-19 and specifically to ensure public-health guidance is respected,” said Suncor spokeswoman Erin Rees.

“All requests for postponement of monitoring were due to the number of people required to perform the work, impacting our ability to ensure physical distancing.”

Grandjamb said Fort McKay understands the need for adjustments. Still, he’s skeptical.

“We also have questions about the length of these ‘temporary exemptions’ and would like more clarity about a return to responsible environmental monitoring,” he wrote.

READ MORE: Whistler request for Alberta oilsands company to cover climate change expenses causes outrage

Grandjamb added that some operators have assured him that monitoring will continue.

“We hope they remain committed to sharing that data in light of the AER’s decision.”

Alberta Energy spokesman Kavi Bal said the regulator’s decisions are supported by an order from minister Sonya Savage.

“Temporary suspensions will result in minor impacts to data … or a delay in some auditing activities,” he wrote in an email. “Monitoring a bit less frequently for a period of time will not hamper the regulator’s ability to understand long-term trends and impacts.”

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Investigation finds misuse of funds, scant oversight at AER
Investigation finds misuse of funds, scant oversight at AER

Grandjamb isn’t the only Indigenous leader with concerns. Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation said Wednesday the regulator’s decision threw out 12 years of work.

“It just seems like they’ve put all that to waste,” he said.

Adam said the regulator’s decision may just lead to more legal action from First Nations.