In July, the Alberta oilpatch will have to resume environmental monitoring that was suspended during COVID-19, the provincial government said Tuesday.
The government and the Alberta Energy Regulator relaxed vast sections of environmental rules in the early stages of COVID-19, allowing industry and oil and gas companies to temporarily halt monitoring programs the government said were “low risk.” The changes were widely criticized by First Nations, environmental groups and scientists.
“The unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 pandemic required us to operate under an abundance of caution during the height of the health emergency,” Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage said in a statement Tuesday. “While this pause was of low risk, it is also important that we maintain full confidence in the rigour of our regulatory system and return to all regular reporting activities as soon as it is safe to do so.”
The monitoring will resume on July 15. Until it is reinstated, companies do not need to conduct monitoring in a variety of areas, including groundwater, soil, industrial fumes, wildlife, tailings ponds and more. Much of the monitoring is included in companies' permission to operate.
Industry has roughly three weeks to resume the work — a week more notice than the two weeks restaurants and retailers in Alberta received before they were allowed to reopen. Spokespeople for Savage and Environment Minister Jason Nixon didn't immediately respond to questions about why the longer runway was necessary.
Dale Marshall, of the green nonprofit Environmental Defence, said the government should release a plan for how it will measure and remediate any environmental impacts from the monitoring suspension.
“I’m obviously happy that they’re lifting the suspension,” he said. “It’s still not clear why it was necessary. And will we ever know what the impact of that was?”
The Alberta government first suspended some environmental monitoring with a March 31 order, from Nixon, that said it would cause companies “hardship” to force them to comply during COVID-19. The Alberta Energy Regulator added environmental monitoring exemptions for the oilsands in May, then broadened them to include the entire oil and gas industry, even as the province started lifting COVID-19 restrictions.
Alberta previously said it would have been dangerous to have people going in and out of areas to do the work, possibly bringing the virus with them — a conclusion contested by scientists. Meanwhile, the province didn't place any restrictions on fly-in, fly-out work in the oilsands, which was linked to a COVID-19 outbreak that spread to four other provinces.
Alberta ended its COVID-19 state of emergency last week, prompting calls for the monitoring to be reinstated.
Alberta suspended environmental monitoring for industry and the oilpatch in the early stages of COVID-19. That monitoring will now resume on July 15, the province said. #ableg #cdnpoli
“Now that the public health emergency is no longer in effect and Alberta is reopening as part of our phase two relaunch, industry can resume business while keeping communities and employees safe,” Nixon said in a statement Tuesday.
The Mikisew Cree, Fort McKay and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations appealed the suspensions to the regulator’s internal review body, calling the decision “shocking.” It was done without consultation, they said, and wasn’t explicitly linked to COVID-19.
Alberta’s chief scientist has also said he wasn’t consulted on the decision.
The Alberta NDP called for the head of the AER to resign over the suspension, and a dozen environmental groups and Indigenous organizations asked federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson to intervene.
Editor's Note: This story was updated at 5:20 p.m. eastern to include comments from Environmental Defence.