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Alberta suspends environmental monitoring rules for oilsands over COVID concerns


EDMONTON — The Alberta Energy Regulator has suspended a wide array of environmental monitoring requirements for oilsands companies over public-health concerns raised by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The decision, released earlier this week, means that Imperial Oil, Suncor, Syncrude and Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. don't have to perform much of the testing and monitoring originally required in their licences.

The move comes on top of an earlier order from Alberta Environment Minister Jason Nixon that suspended environmental reporting requirements for all industry.

The latest exemptions specifically relieve operators of having to monitor most ground and surface water, unless it enters the environment. Almost all wildlife and bird monitoring is suspended. 

Air-quality programs, including one for the First Nations community of Fort McKay, have been reduced, along with many other conditions of the companies' licences. Testing for leaks of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, has been suspended.

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

The regulator says some programs are to resume by the end of September, but most have no restart date.

Regulator spokesman Shawn Roth said in an email Wednesday that essential monitoring remains intact.

"Surveillance and monitoring by operators and the AER continues to ensure safe and responsible operations of all facilities," he wrote.

"Companies must continue to collect the majority of monitoring information they did previously and provide it to the AER upon request."

Companies must still monitor dams, said Roth. Bird deterrents for tailings ponds remain in place, although at least 50 birds died this week at an Imperial tailings site.

Roth said the suspensions are likely to remain in place as long as there are other COVID-related orders under the Public Health Act, although some of the exemptions have an end date of Sept. 30.

The regulator did not make anyone available for an interview.

Earlier this week, the federal government allowed industry to delay reporting of greenhouse gas emissions to July 31 from June 1.

Shaun Fluker, a University of Calgary law professor who follows oilpatch regulation, said the catalogue of exemptions is similar to the longtime wish list of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. 

"The AER and these companies have been having these discussions for a long time," he said.

"It starts to look more like the pandemic is being used as an opportunity to grant relief that we would never see as acceptable in normal times."

He said the move virtually negates Alberta's environmental laws, since enforcement depends on industry monitoring data.  

Other observers were stunned by the exemptions.

"Everything we've done for the last 12 years ... they've just scrapped all that," said Allan Adam, chief of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. "I've got no faith in the AER."

Mandy Olsgard, a consultant who was the regulator's senior environmental toxicologist until 2017, said she was shocked by the unilateral decision. 

She said it will disrupt the continuous monitoring records that the original licence conditions demanded. A gap of a few months could render an entire year's data useless, she said.

Keith Stewart of Greenpeace Canada likened the move to "taking the battery out of your smoke alarms so you can get a good night's sleep."

He said Greenpeace isn't aware of any other jurisdiction in the world that has gone as far as Alberta to roll back environmental protections during the pandemic, including the United States under President Donald Trump.

"(Alberta Premier Jason) Kenney is out-Trumping Trump," Stewart said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 6, 2020

— Follow @row1960 on Twitter

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

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