After suspending multiple requirements for industry to monitor air, water and wildlife at 16 different oilsands projects, the Alberta Energy Regulator has decided to expand its suspension of environmental rules to almost all companies operating in the province’s oil and gas industry.
In two new sweeping decisions published on May 20, the provincial regulator said that it was no longer safe for the companies to continue monitoring environmental impacts due to the threat of COVID-19.
The regulator also noted in one of the decisions that the number of affected oil and gas companies was too long to list.
“It is not practical to name all of the operators individually that are affected by this decision because of the large number of operators,” the regulator said in one of the decisions.
The other decision suspends multiple monitoring requirements for a group of oilsands projects that were not included in its previous decisions from April 29, May 1, and May 5.
The regulator’s decisions come after the province started a relaunch plan for its economy following its COVID-19 lockdown, including a bid to host NHL playoff games in Edmonton when the league resumes its suspended season.
But this explanation contrasts with the message that Premier Jason Kenney sent to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in a May 12 letter, saying that Edmonton was ready to start hosting hockey games.
“We are confident that with the already released relaunch plan, there would be a clear path for the NHL to work with public health officials to allow these NHL games to take place,” Kenney wrote in the letter.
At a news conference in Edmonton on Thursday, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health was asked if she could explain why the AER believes environmental monitoring comes with health risks amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and also why environmental monitoring needs to be suspended even though it is considered safe for oilsands companies to continue their work.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know the background to that decision,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw said.
“That might be something that I need to learn more about… I don’t have that information right now about the background to that decision.”
Monique Dubé, former chief scientist of the regulator from 2014 to 2017, who recently left a senior position at Alberta Environment and Parks, told Global News that some of the AER decisions are risky and don’t appear to be justified.
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“We’re talking about protection of people and the environment from acute incidents that could affect environmental health and human health in the short term,” she said.
Environment and Climate Change Canada, which is responsible for enforcing federal environmental laws and cooperates with provincial regulators, said it only learned about the earlier suspension of monitoring requirements by the AER through the regulator’s website.
But both federal and provincial officials said that their enforcement officers would continue inspections and other activities, during the pandemic.
The AER also said that “groundwater monitoring necessary to protect human health and ecological receptors remains in place.” But it did not provide details or share the evidence to back up its statements, nor did it share any of the research it reviewed prior to making its decisions.
Jess Sinclair, a spokeswoman for Alberta Environment Minister Jason Nixon, defended the regulator’s decisions, saying that they were meant to strike a balance between ensuring public safety and the safety of workers.
“In all cases, monitoring activities required to assure immediate public health, protection of the environment, and emergency response and preparedness will continue,” said Sinclair.
She did not immediately provide details of what evidence the government or regulator had reviewed prior to the decisions and what monitoring activities they considered to be critical.
“We continue to monitor the COVID-19 situation and these short-term relief measures,” she said. “Work is underway to determine when exemptions will be lifted.”
She also noted that no fans would be present at the proposed NHL games and that players would stay at a central location, unlike monitoring staff who would travel. She did not provide details about why the government believed the risks of traveling NHL players arriving in Edmonton would be different from the risks posed by traveling monitoring staff.
Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam said that his community, more than 200 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, wants the federal government to intervene to take over the responsibility for the monitoring work that Alberta was suspending.
He told Global News that his First Nation would take legal action if needed to protect the health of his community.
“Interestingly enough, they’re still going to have field personnel out there doing field measurements, but they’ve removed the requirement to take out a bottle of water and send it to the lab,” Olsgard said.
She also noted that Indigenous communities were relying on data collected in monitoring, but that some of this data would no longer be available.
“If these had come out in March, you could have understood why, but now we’re back in business, the economy is rolling and all of a sudden, we’re seeing more relaxation of monitoring.”Speaking at a news conference, Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley blamed Kenney for the regulator’s decision.
“This is an utterly idiotic decision and an idiotic rationale,” Notley said at a news conference. “What, in fact, we’re seeing here is a cynical and exploitative use of this pandemic in order to bring about the extreme agenda of Jason Kenney, which is to stop any work to protect the land, air and water that Albertans care about.”
Notley added that the Kenney government is also sending mixed messages by telling hairdressers that it’s okay for them to get close enough to clients to cut their hair, but that it’s not safe for oil and gas companies to proceed with some monitoring for toxins.
She said that Alberta’s reputation and its economy would suffer as a result of the regulator’s decisions.
“We have the capacity in Alberta to be a world leader in terms of having environmentally responsible and sustainable oil and gas production,” Notley said. “But whether you’re talking about trying to make that case to Ottawa or trying to make that case to international investors, you don’t make that case when you suddenly turn your province into the wild west of environmental protection. It’s utterly ridiculous.”