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The Alberta government has relaxed its environmental oversight rules for industry, saying that forcing companies to fully comply during the COVID-19 pandemic would cause "hardship."
The March 31 order allows companies that are normally required to update the government about the condition of the environment they work in — including air emissions, or water diverted from rivers — to temporarily suspend that reporting. Critics say the move, signed off by Alberta Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon, looks like an overreach that hasn’t been properly justified by the government.
“When I see orders like this I do scratch my head a little bit,” said Shaun Fluker, an associate professor at the University of Calgary who studies environmental law.
“We’re removing transparency when we remove reporting obligations … I think we make matters worse if governments are seen to be exercising powers that they don’t necessarily need.”
Jess Sinclair, a press secretary for Nixon, said in an email that the order is intended to allow companies to focus on their employees’ health and safety.
“This is about deadlines for filing paper work — not about standards,” she said.
“Monitoring activities continue. Environmental data is still being collected and any results found out of the ordinary still need to be reported to us.”
South of the border, similar moves have been made by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on orders from the Trump administration.
With numbers of COVID-19 cases rising rapidly in Alberta, the province declared a state of emergency on March 17. Nixon’s order was done through that emergency declaration, using a mechanism that doesn’t require cabinet approval.
The order itself doesn’t directly explain how the ongoing pandemic relates to companies’ ability to fulfill their environmental obligations. Instead, it states that “there is hardship in having to comply with routine reporting requirements ... during this public health emergency.”
The order also doesn’t say whether companies will eventually be required to report the environmental data to the government, saying only that they must collect the data and give it to provincial officials upon request.
"I think we make matters worse if governments are seen to be exercising powers that they don’t necessarily need," said Shaun Fluker, an associate professor at the University of Calgary who studies environmental law.
The pause in environmental reporting doesn't apply to drinking water or wastewater facilities.
It’s odd that the province would give companies a blanket exception without asking them to prove that they need it, Fluker said. The federal COVID-19 financial assistance packages, for example, require applicants to show why funding would be necessary. And many companies would likely still be able to keep up with the reporting during the pandemic, Fluker added.
“We’re really impairing the ability of the regulatory system to do its job,” he said. “We require this for a reason.”
Dale Marshall of Environmental Defence said he doesn’t believe even the extreme circumstances of the pandemic would merit the move from the Alberta government. Environmental laws are crucial to maintaining public health, he said.
“Saying that it is not in the public interest to enforce environmental laws is really scary,” Marshall said. “It clearly shows that in moments like this, where there are a lot of distractions and a lot of people thinking about a lot of things other than corporate responsibility, governments like that in Alberta are willing to roll back laws that essentially protect people.”
The relaxed rules would end either on Aug. 14, or 60 days after Alberta ends its current state of emergency, whichever comes first. Nixon could also choose to end it sooner at his discretion.
‘It’s really hard to discern what some of the risks are’
Though the environmental reporting covered by Nixon’s order is routine, it’s still important, Fluker said. Oftentimes, they’re meant to give the government more information when they’re not sure what the potential impacts of industrial activity could be.
“Without getting those reports, there are risks of not knowing what you don’t know.”
Jason Unger, the executive director of the non-profit Alberta Environmental Law Centre, said it’s not clear that reporting environmental data to the government would have been particularly difficult for many companies. It’s understandable that the government wants to reduce the costs imposed on Albertans right now, he added, but depending on the type of monitoring required — air emissions are more complex than water level monitoring, for example — it may not take much more effort to report that information.
While these measures are in place, he added, it’s crucial that officials maintain environmental monitoring and keep consequences in place for companies that disobey the rules.
“It’s really hard to discern what some of the risks are,” he said.
“We want transparency in how our environment is being impacted. There’s the need for public assurance that things won’t be missed.”