Alberta regulator's move to suspend oilpatch monitoring sets dangerous precedent, critics say
'We are investing a tremendous amount of faith in the companies'
The decision to suspend some environmental monitoring requirements for Alberta's oilpatch during the COVID-19 pandemic sets a dangerous precedent and jeopardizes environmental safety, critics say.
The Alberta Energy Regulator's (AER) issued two sweeping decisions on Wednesday suspending a list of monitoring requirements for the province's oil industry. It comes after the regulator issued similar suspensions directly to four oil giants — Suncor, Syncrude, Imperial and Canadian Natural Resources — in relation to open-pit oilsands mines.
Oil companies told the regulator they had concerns about their ability to carry out certain requirements while meeting COVID-19 guidelines, the decision notes.
The decision sets a dangerous precedent for the rollback of environmental obligations in the oil industry, says Debra Davidson, environmental sociologist at the University of Alberta.
Any gaps in environmental data erode the ability to establish trends and hold companies accountable, she said.
"We are investing a tremendous amount of faith in the companies themselves at a time when there are pretty solid institutional incentives on the part of these companies to cut corners," she said, noting the collapse in oil prices during the pandemic.
Among the listed suspensions, surface water at production sites no longer need to be tested unless they escape to the environment. In situ oilsands operators no longer have to conduct any wildlife monitoring, at a time when migratory birds are returning to the boreal forests of northern Alberta.
Soil and groundwater monitoring is gone, except for "any monitoring that is necessary to protect human health and ecological receptors," the decisions say. Those efforts must resume by Sept. 30, the only suspensions with a sunset clause.
'We're sort of robbed of the justification'
Mandy Olsgard, a former environmental toxicologist with the AER, said it was shocking the regulator would issue the decisions seemingly without public consultation.
In situ operators pump steam down into a well to liquify thick crude oil buried deep in the ground before it's drawn to the surface. The process generates a lot of heat and can cause chemicals to move into the groundwater, especially arsenic, Olsgard says.
"And we now won't have monitoring data for that," she said.
The decisions were issued unilaterally by the regulator, which means the oil companies did not have to make public submissions, says University of Calgary law professor Shaun Fluker. Without that submission, there is no detailed record outlining why the oil companies say they can't meet all their environmental obligations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We're sort of robbed of the justification part of it, or at least it's not made known for the record," Fluker said.
A search of AER decisions going back to 1996 found no unilateral decisions had been issued by the regulator up until the pandemic. In the past month, it's issued 10.
Martin Foy, interim vice president with the AER, says there shouldn't be any more significant suspensions required. He says the AER will lift them as soon as it's safe to do so.
"Now our job becomes one of monitoring them for when we can safely lift the suspensions and how we can ensure that the temporary suspensions are mitigated," he said.
The AER, Foy says, looked at two questions when considering industry's request: was there a COVID-19 health risk associated with the monitoring activity and is the activity low risk?
"When we looked at a lot of these low-risk activities, they were activities that we had a bunch of historical data on, or we had other ways of collecting the data, or they were long-term studies where we could miss an event and pick up on the monitoring after the health restrictions were lifted," he said.
But those activities, imposed by the regulator on behalf of the public, are there to ensure companies keep tabs on identified environmental risks as a condition of a project's approval, Olsgard says.
'We're just asking for some time'
Syncrude says the majority of its environmental monitoring will continue, including water quality testing at release points, its pollution control systems and routine air monitoring. The suspension request, among those granted earlier this month, is about the safety and well-being of the people at the site, said spokesperson Will Gibson.
"We've limited our onsite workforce to only those who are critical to maintaining the integrity of our operations," he said.
A key reason for the company's request, Gibson said, is that there are concerns about flying workers from outside the province into the oilsands sites to conduct some of the monitoring activities.
"We're just asking for some time to get a hand on this pandemic," he said.
But the industry has made no public commitments to end the use of fly-in workers during the pandemic. An outbreak at the Kearl Lake site north of Fort McMurray operated by Imperial Oil has been connected to more than a hundred cases spanning across the country.
Gibson said he "couldn't rule out" that Syncrude was using fly-in workers from outside the province to conduct work deemed critical by the company, but said efforts had been made to prioritize local staff. He could not say how many people would typically be required to carry out the monitoring work suspended by the AER's decision.
Imperial and Canadian Natural Resources Limited did not respond to a CBC News request for comment.
Cenovus declined an interview request, issuing a statement that said the request to AER was made to ensure physical distancing at their operations. A spokesperson did not respond to follow-up questions before publication time.
As companies cut back on the number of workers at their sites to mitigate COVID-19 risks, now is an especially dangerous time to also cut back on environmental checks, says Olsgard.
"When you've gone down to a skeleton crew or you're running with a smaller staff, that's when you run a higher risk of having operational upsets and potential acute health risk events."
Davidson, an environmental sociologist, questioned how the oil companies can say the environmental suspensions are necessary to maintain COVID-19 guidelines while hundreds of people continue to work on sites to produce oil.
"These aren't the first efforts in North America to sort of weaken environmental regulatory protocols within the context of the pandemic," Davidson said.
The AER decisions follow orders issued at the end of March by Alberta's environment and energy ministers, suspending reporting requirements under provincial laws that govern the oil industry. Those orders specifically note that monitoring was to continue during the public health crisis, an expectation confirmed by the environment ministry in an interview with CBC News at the time.
"While some requirements have been temporarily suspended, protecting the environment and public safety remains the highest priority of the regulator," said press secretary Jess Sinclair in a statement Thursday.
With files from Canadian Press