Alberta reinstating environmental monitoring in industry, oilpatch

Alberta industries, including oil and gas, will have to resume all environmental reporting as of July 15, the Alberta government announced Tuesday.

Critics question whether suspension was necessary at all

Environmental monitoring and reporting will resume for Alberta's oilpatch on July 15. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Alberta industries, including oil and gas, will have to resume all environmental reporting as of July 15, the Alberta government announced Tuesday.

But critics question why the government and Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) were able to waive such requirements at all during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alberta Wilderness Association conservation specialist Carolyn Campbell said the government never asked for proof that collecting and submitting data would present a health risk to workers.

"It shouldn't be that easy to slam the brakes on environmental monitoring and reporting without more transparency and more dialogue," Campbell said in a Tuesday interview.

Earlier this month, Indigenous leaders and environmentalists wrote to federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, asking him to intervene. They said Alberta failed to consider the implications for Wood Buffalo National Park and the Northwest Territories, which are downstream from oilsands operations in northeastern Alberta.

Wilkinson's press secretary told the CBC last week the federal government expects all parties to "continue to make every reasonable effort to undertake environmental monitoring in a matter that protects the health and safety of Canadians."

Meanwhile, Alberta Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon said in a Tuesday interview the government could relax reporting requirements again in the future, should the spread of COVID-19 present a risk to workers' health.

"The reality is, we worked with our industry to be able to meet the requirements of the chief medical officer," he said.

Some water, air and wildlife monitoring suspended

The temporary relaxation of rules came from different authorities at different times.

On March 31, Nixon suspended some environmental reporting requirements, excluding any drinking water facilities.

A week later, Energy Minister Sonya Savage penned a ministerial order exempting coal, oil and gas companies from submitting routine reports.

Between April 29 and May 5, the AER released decisions that eased some monitoring and reporting requirements for oilsands operations. On May 20, it followed with relaxed rules for conventional and in situ (steam extraction) operations.

Some of the suspended requirements included monitoring wildlife by video or sound, bringing in contractors to detect fugitive emissions leaks, some soil and groundwater monitoring, and surveying the volume of liquid in tailings ponds.

Both the government and the AER announced on Tuesday all regular requirements will resume on July 15. Nixon said the province's recent easing of health restrictions prompted the government to accelerate that timeline by a month. 

Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon said suspending industry's requirement to submit some environmental reports during the pandemic was the right move to protect worker safety. (CBC)

Nixon said all of the reporting suspended by the government were long-term measures that can be easily resumed.

Although there may be some gaps in AER data, spokesperson Shawn Roth said the pandemic pause shouldn't impact the regulator's long-term data.

"The AER provided temporary suspensions that were supported by technical experts, did not impact the AER's ability to fulfil its mandate, and were a low risk to have short- or long-term impacts to long-term data integrity or environmental outcomes," he said in a Tuesday email. "All essential environmental monitoring continues, and all requirements to monitor and report emergency events remain in place."

Critics say regulators could miss early detection of problems

NDP environment critic Marlin Schmidt said he's relieved the reprieve is coming to an end. He said it shouldn't have happened in the first place, as workers could have modified their duties to collect and distribute the information safely.

"I think obviously they're feeling the heat," Schmidt said of the Alberta government. "First Nations wanted to take them to court. It's made international news for all the wrong reasons. Obviously, the government is doing some damage control and reputation management here."

Carolyn Campbell of the Alberta Wilderness Association says it wasn't right for government and the AER to unilaterally suspend environmental monitoring and reporting during the COVID-19 pandemic. (CBC)

The wilderness association's Campbell said the organization has talked to field consultants who would have preferred to keep monitoring, rather than losing work during the pandemic.

The government also failed to consult with affected Indigenous communities, she said.

Although the AER describes its moves as "low risk," Campbell said the regulator reported 18 incidents in January 2020 in which potentially harmful substances such as oil, hydrogen sulphide and salty water were released.

Those incidents wouldn't be reported now, she said. What appear as small warning signs can also indicate a potentially much larger threat, she said.

Said Campbell: "If these important companies in terms of their impacts on water and land are able to operate, they need to be able to operate responsibly, and transparency around monitoring and reporting is really key."