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Alberta Energy Regulator keeps suspension of environmental regulations despite opposition

Alberta’s energy regulator has decided to keep temporary restrictions of some of their regulatory monitoring during the COVID-19 pandemic despite public pressure from Indigenous groups and environmentalists on both sides of the N.W.T. and Alberta border. 

The Alberta Energy Regulator says the suspensions will last until the public health order is lifted

The Cassette Rapids are part of the Slave River near Fort Smith, N.W.T. Leaders in the territory oppose the Alberta Energy Regulator's decision to suspend some environmental monitoring during the COVID-19 pandemic because it could affect the water quality of the river. (Leif Anderson)

Temporary restrictions on environmental monitoring of oilsands projects during the COVID-19 pandemic will remain in place, says the Alberta Energy Regulator.

This comes despite public pressure from Indigenous groups and environmentalists on both sides of the N.W.T. and Alberta border.   

In a statement dated June 16, the regulator said that the temporary suspension of some of its regulations will remain in place as long as the province's public health orders for physical distancing and travel restrictions continue.  The temporary suspensions are a measure of "temporary relief" for Alberta's energy industry that are not able to comply with the public health order. 

"Industry, like all Albertans, have been challenged to conduct day to day activities and still comply with the orders that are in place to protect public health," the public statement reads. 

The regulator first met with opposition from three Alberta First Nations, who filed a formal challenge to the province's decision. Then, environmentalists and Indigenous leaders in the N.W.T. and Alberta penned a joint letter last week asking Jonathan Wilkinson, the federal minister of environment and climate change, to get involved. 

In response, the regulator said it would re-evaluate the postponements after Alberta entered Phase 2 of re-opening on June 12. 

The regulator said they evaluated whether the postponed regulations could create any short or long term impacts to environmental monitoring and that the public health order posed a clear "challenge" to their monitoring activities. 

"Industry, like all Albertans, have been challenged to conduct day to day activities and still comply with the [public health] orders." - Statement from the Alberta Energy Regulator 

The province's regulator has "tens of thousands" of requirements, but specified that between two to five percent of them have been suspended during the pandemic. The suspended regulations include some groundwater sampling and remote wildlife monitoring. 

The regulator said in their statement that industry still has to report and fulfil any requirements that have not been suspended during the pandemic. They must also report any emergencies that could impact the environment or public safety. 

Decision 'spits in the face' of bilateral water agreement 

On Wednesday the N.W.T.'s Dene Nation added their voice to the long list of those in opposition to the Alberta Energy Regulator's decision. 

"The waters of the Mackenzie Basin flow north, we are all in the path of pollution and harm." - Norman Yakeleya, Dene National Chief 

Gerry Cheezie, the chief of Smith's Landing First Nation, Garry Bailey, the president of the N.W.T Métis Nation and Patrick Simon, the mayor of Fort Resolution, have already spoken out against the decision by adding their names to the letter addressed to minister Wilkinson. 

Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya says the Alberta Energy Regulator's decision to suspend some monitoring 'spits in the face' of a bi-lateral agreement to protect the region's cross-border waterways. (Sidney Cohen/CBC News)

In a statement, Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya said the impacts of the regulator's temporary suspensions will be felt beyond Alberta's borders. 

"The waters of the Mackenzie Basin flow north, we are all in the path of pollution and harm," Yakeleya's statement reads. "It's not only an environmental issue when pollution and water contamination are left without regulation." 

Yakeleya, along with the other N.W.T. leaders, are concerned that oilsands projects could change the water quality of the Slave River and Great Slave Lake, which are both downstream from oil sands projects in Fort McMurray, Alta. 

In 2015, the N.W.T. and Alberta co-signed a bilateral agreement that sets out a shared responsibility to protect the region's waterways. The agreement includes commitments to conduct surface and groundwater monitoring to measure any impacts to aquatic ecosystems. 

Yakeleya said the regulator's decision "spits in the face" of this agreement and argues that the federal and territorial governments should intervene in this "unilateral" decision. 

Moira Kelly, a spokesperson for the federal Department of Environment and Climate Change, told CBC in a statement that the letter addressed to Wilkinson raises "serious questions" about  Alberta government's decision to postpone some environmental monitoring regulations and the "lack" of Indigenous consultation. 

Kelly said the government's laws to protect the environment, human health and conservation are still in effect during the pandemic. The government expects parties to "continue to make every reasonable effort" to continue environmental monitoring in a way that protects the health and safety of Canadians.

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