The Alberta Energy Regulator has suspended more than a dozen environmental rules at 16 different oilsands projects after four major companies in the Canadian oil patch asked for relief amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The regulator, an independent provincial organization which acts as an industry watchdog, told Global News in a statement that companies would still have to collect most of the monitoring information required previously.
But it said that a number of requirements to monitor air, water and wildlife would be suspended in order to help contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The watchdog declined to provide further details of how it determined that some monitoring activity would be risky, but noted that it would continue to monitor and inspect energy sites.
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The regulator described the rule changes on its website as “unilateral” amendments to previously approved conditions of 16 different oilsands mining and in situ projects operated by Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL), Imperial Oil, Suncor and Syncrude.
Among the temporary changes, enacted on April 29 and May 1, the companies would no longer have to take some surface and groundwater samples around plants, or measure toxic pollution from stacks. They would also be allowed to suspend some monitoring by contractors of sulphur and volatile organic compound emissions.
In addition, the oil majors would be allowed to temporarily overlook requirements to monitor wildlife, birds and wetlands, including some monitoring of animals that require the use of cameras or recording devices as well as field work to monitor rare plants.
“Surveillance and monitoring by operators and the AER continues to ensure safe and responsible operations of all facilities,” the regulator told Global News in a statement on Thursday. “We anticipate that the amendments will be in place long as the public orders issued under the Public Health Act remain in effect.”
The regulator also said it was in “regular contact” with industry representatives, including lobby groups such as the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and the Explorers and Producers Association of Canada.
It declined to respond to a question about whether it had consulted First Nations, which have agreements with companies about operations and could be impacted by the reduction in monitoring.
The rule changes also coincided with a Canadian Press report that 50 birds had died after landing on a tailings pond near an oilsands site operated by one of the companies that was granted relief, Imperial Oil.
The World Health Organization has warned that air pollution could exacerbate the severity of COVID-19, and one preliminary analysis from researchers at Harvard University, not yet peer-reviewed, has found that exposure to air pollution can increase COVID-19 mortality rates.
Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam said the reduction in monitoring was of “grave concern” to his nation, and he called on the regulator to review its decision.
“There should never be a choice between protecting the health and safety of those workers and protecting the environment and the health of First Nations people,” he said in a statement. “Neither of these are negotiable. Had we been consulted on this decision, we would have strongly objected to the false choices that the Alberta Energy Regulator is asking Albertans to make.”
Earlier this spring, Premier Jason Kenney’s cabinet used its emergency powers under the COVID-19 crisis to suspend some environmental reporting requirements for a number of industries, but it said at the time that monitoring work would continue.
CNRL didn’t respond to a request for comment, but the three other companies affected by the recent decisions said that they requested the relief from environmental monitoring due to worker safety concerns as the deadly COVID-19 disease continues to spread around the world.
A few hundred kilometres south of the oilsands projects, other employers in the food industry are fighting major outbreaks of COVID-19 at a pair of Alberta meatpacking plants, Cargill and JBS. The outbreaks have been linked to at least two deaths, prompting provincial occupational health and safety investigations.
Oilsands companies, which include camps with thousands of workers, some of whom fly in and out from different regions, have only reported one smaller outbreak of COVID-19 since the pandemic struck Canada.
Both Suncor and Syncrude told Global News that they had scaled down some production since March, reducing the number of workers on project sites and implementing changes in transportation to promote more physical distancing for workers en route.
“Suncor has worked with its vendors, contractors and local government agencies to ensure we’re appropriately following physical distance guidelines,” said Suncor spokesperson Erin Rees. “As a part of this work, we made requests to the AER to postpone some monitoring in order to protect workers and the public from COVID-19 and specifically to ensure public health guidance is respected.
“To be clear — all requests for postponement of monitoring were due to the number of people required to perform the work, impacting our ability to ensure physical distancing.”
The extra challenges also coincide with a challenging global market that has caused many companies to suffer losses as demand for oil plummets around the world in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Syncrude, which has previously reported two cases of COVID-19, said its request for regulatory relief is part of a large suite of measures to scale back non-essential operations, and prevent further spread of the virus.
“We’re not asking that these [environmental rules] be permanently stopped,” Syncrude spokesman Will Gibson told Global News.
“We’re just saying right now, during COVID, the priority should be health and safety of people that work on our sites.”
There have been at least 19 cases of COVID-19, traced back to the Kearl Lake work camp, operated by Imperial Oil.
When asked about the environmental rule changes, Imperial Oil spokesperson Jon Harding said that the company’s focus, throughout the pandemic, was on the health and safety of its workforce.
A lot of the rule changes are similar to a list of requests made by the industry lobby group CAPP in a letter to federal cabinet ministers that was leaked to Global News in April. The letter prompted one environmentalist to accuse the industry of taking advantage of the pandemic to eliminate rules it doesn’t like.
Environmental monitoring in the oilsands has been a sensitive political issue ever since 2008, when 1,600 oil-soaked ducks were found dead after landing in a tailings pond. The incident created a public relations nightmare for industry, generating international headlines and turning the oilsands into a frequent target of activists from around the world.
But the duck deaths also helped prompt the federal and provincial governments to create a multimillion-dollar joint scientific monitoring program, funded by industry, as part of efforts to show that development was proceeding in a responsible manner.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the Alberta Energy Regulator’s recent decisions would affect any federal environmental laws or the joint oilsands monitoring program.
Environment and Climate Change Canada didn’t immediately respond to questions about the Alberta rule changes.
While the oil patch is getting some relief due to the risks of COVID-19, the Kenney government indicated that Alberta was succeeding in efforts to curb the spread of the disease and ready to start reopening parts of the economy.
Premier Jason Kenney had noted on April 30 that the province had prevented COVID-19 from overwhelming the province’s health-care system. He also pointed to Alberta’s aggressive testing measures and the province’s ability to identify outbreaks and then contain them.
But he said the reopening would be contingent on the province continuing to be able to keep case numbers from overwhelming the system, and that Albertans would need to remain vigilant in following public health orders and recommendations.
“Your efforts and tremendous sacrifices have so far succeeded in containing the spread of the virus far below the devastating scale of the outbreak in many other places, and well below the capacity of our health-care system to look after vulnerable Albertans,” he said.
“Our success has been built on a sound pandemic response plan, implemented by Dr. [Deena] Hinshaw and our team at Alberta Health, who saw COVID-19 coming before many others did.
“They acted quickly and prudently to ensure our stockpile of medical supplies and aggressive testing regime would be the best in Canada, and among the very best in the world.”
–With files from Global News’ Phil Heidenreich
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