Oil and gas companies in Alberta used the coronavirus pandemic to press for temporary rule changes, including some based on “purely economic issues” that had nothing to do with preventing the spread of COVID-19, reveals an April 20 internal briefing note released by the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER).
The newly-released document contradicts previous public statements made by provincial and industry stakeholders who suggested that the suspension of dozens of environmental rules in April and May was based on public health concerns.
The briefing material is part of nearly 60 pages of emails that went through the inbox of Laurie Pushor, president and chief executive officer of the regulator.
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Under normal circumstances, the AER would review rule changes or proposals from industry through an open process that would allow for public participation and access to proposals, evidence and analysis of decisions.
But in this case, it took a freedom of information request from Global News to prompt the regulator to release a partially-censored copy of the records that show how it reached its decisions.
Provincial and industry officials continue to maintain that the temporary rule changes were justified due to the public health emergency, even though the changes have since been lifted as of July 15.
Some of these temporary changes included suspending requirements for remote monitoring done by automated machines such as cameras.
The regulator censored its full analysis of the industry requests in the records released to Global News, citing exceptions to provincial freedom of information legislation that allow government organizations to withhold internal advice.
But the unredacted material also shows how senior employees of two oil and gas companies, Suncor and Syncrude, successfully pressed an executive of the regulator, through emails and phone calls, to get what they wanted.
In one of those emails on April 15, a senior lawyer from Suncor told the AER’s executive vice president of operations Martin Foy she believed it was time to “escalate” the matter.
Within days, the internal email correspondence shows that the regulator and the provincial Alberta Environment and Parks Department had a list of nearly two dozen regulations under review.
Foy also had a phone call with officials from Syncrude and Suncor, on April 20, telling them that the regulator needed “specific justification for the temporary suspension of each monitoring condition on an individual operator basis.”
He then invited the oil officials to send him “an affirmative statement, and corresponding rationale,” to suspend 22 different monitoring requirements.
He also noted in a separate email to senior government and regulatory officials that the operators were “happy progress was being made.”
That afternoon the AER’s chief of staff sent a briefing note to AER president Pushor, general counsel Charlene Graham and Foy.
The note highlighted the concerns from operations that contractors performing monitoring requirements could bring the novel coronavirus to communities living near oilsands operations in the northern part of Alberta.
The briefing material also noted that the regulator would need to review the rationale for rule changes submitted by oilsands operators.
“The feedback will be used to determine which monitoring requirements need to be relaxed due to COVID-19 process effects and those which hare purely economic issues,” said the briefing note.
Representatives from Indigenous communities, including the Fort McKay First Nation, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, and the Mikisew Cree First Nation, told Global News that the content of the correspondence “undermines the integrity” of how the regulator operates. The regulator must be open, transparent, share its reasoning and be accountable for its decisions, they said. Instead, they said the regulator took a decision that was “inappropriate and unlawful.”
Their communities, in the Athabasca region of Alberta, appealed the AER’s decisions in June on the grounds that they were not consulted, as required by the Constitution. While they may now drop this appeal since the regulator has lifted the temporary rule suspensions, they are concerned it might happen again.
“The fact that a public regulator appears to have not only consulted, but actively collaborated with private industry without the knowledge or involvement of affected First Nations or the people of Alberta is deeply troubling,” Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam told Global News.
“It suggests that the primary interests being considered are those of the industry.”
Pushor responded to representatives of four of the affected First Nations, including the Chipewyan Prairie Dene First Nation, in a letter sent on June 23 that offered a partial explanation.
He also extended an invitation for a meeting and indicated that another AER executive would “be in touch shortly” to set it up.
Three weeks later, the First Nations said they still hadn’t received any details or follow up.
“AER could simply acknowledge that First Nations have constitutional rights it cannot ignore and pick up the phone,” said Fort McKay First Nation Chief Mel Grandjamb. “It should not be onerous to forge a working relationship.”
When asked why it hadn’t followed up to schedule the meeting, the regulator told Global News in an email that it was “currently reaching out” to the Indigenous communities and anticipated the conversations would take place later in the summer.
“We remain committed to building a relationship rooted in trust and mutual understanding with Indigenous communities in Alberta.”
The AER also defended its private conversations and phone calls with industry and government officials, saying that these types of conversations are commonplace and important in its work. In this case, the regulator said the private conversations allowed it to “gain clarity” about the situation and “better understand the areas of conflict with AER requirements and the public health orders.”
Suncor Energy spokeswoman Erin Rees told Global News that the AER had also granted some temporary relief which it had never requested, but that the company was continuing monitoring work where it was safe to do so.
“Any monitoring that could be done remotely or through automation continued,” she said. “To be clear — 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. We continued all monitoring that we could perform safely while accommodating distancing.”
Syncrude spokesman Will Gibson told Global News that all of its requests to the AER were to comply with public health and safety requirements from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“None were for economic issues,” said Gibson.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers confirmed that it had made requests for relief in light of the crisis conditions, while noting that the temporary suspensions represented between two to five per cent of overall monitoring requirements, including activities that rely heavily on third-party contractors.
“All work that is protective of human health, process integrity, or immediate harm to the environment has, and will continue,” the association told Global News in an email.
Kavi Bal, a senior press secretary for Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage, told Global News that the energy sector was one of Canada’s largest employers, supporting 800,000 jobs nationwide.
“It comes as no surprise that the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers would seek out meetings to discuss relevant matters — that is the role of any industry association,” wrote Bal in an email. “This is no different than the meetings CAPP would have with other provincial governments or in fact the federal government. The AER, as the independent regulator, makes its own decisions.”
But the regulator told Global News that it remains in “regular contact” officials from the provincial government and industry to work together on responses to the coronavirus pandemic.
Speaking to reporters at a news conference on Friday, Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley described the revelations in the emails as “very troubling,” saying it calls into question the integrity of both the regulator and the government.
“What they suggest is that the government’s claims that the decision to stop monitoring much oilsands activity in the midst of the pandemic had much less to do with safety issues and far more to do with economic issues,” she said.
She added that the regulator should release all records related to how it reached its decision, including those that it censored. This would include providing more information about why the regulator decided to stop some monitoring requirements that don’t require humans to be present in the field, such as remote camera monitoring, she explained.
“How in heaven’s name that impacts the health and safety of somebody is ridiculous,” Notley said. “No one can understand that unless robots are now at risk of getting COVID.”