Alberta relaxed far more environmental rules than any other government in Canada during pandemic, study finds

Alberta relaxed or suspended 54 regulations, but also has far more environmental rules than many places: study

Posted: March 24, 2021
Last Updated: March 24, 2021

A decommissioned pumpjack is shown at a well head on an oil and gas installation near Cremona, Alta., in 2016. A new study found that Alberta relaxed or suspended 54 environmental rules in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, far more than any other government in Canada, but also points out the province has more such rules to relax than many other provinces. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Alberta relaxed more environmental rules in response to the COVID-19 pandemic than any other government in Canada, says a study from the University of Calgary.

"I didn't find any other jurisdiction that went as far as Alberta did," said Victoria Goodday, a researcher at the university's School of Public Policy. "The degree of rollbacks, they were most significant in Alberta."

Goodday noticed that after the pandemic hit last spring, governments across Canada began loosening environmental restrictions.


She tallied an easing of 143 different rules and regulations from every jurisdiction in the country except Manitoba. Most benefited the oil and gas industry.

Of that total, 54 were in Alberta, which suspended all monitoring and reporting requirements — except those pertaining to water — for the province's resource industries.

That was by far the highest number, Goodday found, although her study notes the province's large oil and gas sector means it has more regulations to begin with.

Regulations dialed back around the world

Governments around the world dialed back environmental regulation as COVID-19 bit deeper, Goodday said.

Across Canada, the most common moves were to defer fees or extend timelines for reporting requirements. Few governments offered any specific rationale other than the extraordinary conditions of the pandemic.

Goodday said almost all simply suspended regulations for any company to which they applied. Only the federal government, Saskatchewan, Quebec and three British Columbia agencies required companies to provide some evidence that COVID-19 impaired their ability to meet their responsibilities.


"Most agencies in Canada chose to just change rules without the need for (companies) to show they couldn't meet compliance," said Goodday. "Only Environment Canada and B.C. explicitly required that causal link."

Alberta's monitoring ended last summer

Goodday said her research didn't track how many loosened rules have been retightened. Most have, she suggested.

Alberta's monitoring suspensions ended last summer — although the province, like several others, isn't requiring companies to fill in those missing months.

Goodday found fully one-third of the loosened rules across the country had no end date.

Almost all the changes were designed to benefit industry, she said. She uncovered just one example of a relaxation that benefited the public — B.C.'s suspension of public appeal filing deadlines to support public participation.

Goodday said the pandemic changed how many aspects of government worked, but none more so than in environment.


"I can't think of another area of regulation that would have been as affected," she said. "This is a great example of a real-life scenario where we saw how willing government was to put that pillar aside."

Reporting timelines 'adjusted,' government says

Alberta NDP Opposition Leader Rachel Notley suggested the report is an indictment of the United Conservative government's approach to environmental regulation.

"[Premier] Jason Kenney caused long-term damage to Alberta's reputation as a responsible developer of natural resources," she said. "It's clear Jason Kenney used the pandemic to roll back these critical protections for water, land and air."

Under questioning from Notley in the legislature, Kenney responded that Alberta had more rollbacks because it had more environmental regulations in play.

"We have far more heavy industry that is subject to environmental regulation," he said.

"No environmental protections were cancelled, repealed or suspended. Some reporting timelines were adjusted."


Environment Minister Jason Nixon said in an emailed statement that Alberta has a strong history of protecting its environment, and that has not changed. 

"This report lacks important context. Comparing Alberta to other provinces is like comparing apples to oranges. Alberta has a much more robust regulatory system than other provinces given the scope of our heavy industries," he wrote.

Nixon said Alberta did not indefinitely suspend monitoring, as requirements came back into effect in July 2020. He described the temporary measure as necessary to protect the public and ensure worker health and safety.

Nixon also said that Alberta's former chief scientist Fred Wrona had said the relaxed regulations would not "significantly compromise the integrity of Alberta's long-term environmental information systems."

With files from CBC Calgary