Across Canada, governments have suspended, delayed and cancelled environmental protection measures as the country grapples with COVID-19.
The changes started in Alberta, with Ontario following soon afterwards. Now, the federal government and most provinces have made changes related to environmental protection that they say are temporary.
“Some of that stuff is understandable,” said Dale Marshall from green non-profit Environmental Defence. “But it’s clear from the very few examples that are happening in some provinces… that this isn’t just about COVID.”
Now, Canada's National Observer has scoured legislative websites and local news to make a comprehensive list of all the environmental changes made by federal, provincial and territorial governments.
Many of the measures may have been deemed necessary due to COVID-19, and many more are temporary. Others weren’t explicitly linked to the pandemic.
This list shows two standouts, in terms of the level and scope of environmental rollbacks: Alberta and Ontario.
In Alberta, Energy Minister Sonya Savage has said the COVID-19 restrictions on gathering sizes mean it’s a “good time to build a pipeline.” And even as the government jostled to host NHL games, it suspended environmental monitoring requirements for the oil and gas sector, saying the pandemic was too severe for that work to continue — a change that aligned closely with some asks made by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
And in Ontario, Premier Doug Ford’s government suspended a large section of environmental oversight law, saying it could delay response to the pandemic. Under the temporary rules, the government does not need to notify or consult the public about any environment-related changes it makes or projects it approves.
“The bottom line for both Ontario and Alberta is that essentially the old adage about not letting a crisis go to waste,” Marshall said.
“We’re in COVID times and people are distracted with more fundamental things like their jobs and their salaries and their health. I think that's when you see the true colours of some of these governments.”
Across Canada, governments have suspended, delayed and cancelled environmental protection measures as the country grapples with COVID-19. #onpoli
A spokesperson for Savage, Kavi Bal, said the environmental monitoring suspensions in Alberta are short-term, and “work is already underway to determine when exemptions will be lifted.” Bal did not respond to a request for comment on criticism of the changes, and a spokesperson for Alberta Environment Minister Jason Nixon didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The office of Ontario Environment Minister Jeff Yurek did not respond to a question about criticism of the province’s environmental rollbacks.
The list below is meant to be a full accounting of the changes, regardless of intent, whether or not they were linked to COVID-19 specifically or whether the move received any backlash. National Observer assembled it by scouring news articles, government announcements and legislative notices from across the country.
Wherever possible, National Observer has provided links to sources and context. If there’s an item you think we missed, please let us know at [email protected].
Here’s a list of every rollback, suspension or delay of environmental protections in Canada since COVID-19 struck in mid-March. This story was last updated on June 16, 2020.
- Under the orders of Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, announced a new regulation that allows companies proposing exploratory oil and gas drilling off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador to skip the typical impact assessment process. Instead, they would have to meet general environmental conditions, and wells would not be individually reviewed. (source) —Updated June 5
- Cancelled underwater surveys of declining herring populations near Haida Gwaii, B.C. (source)
- Extended the deadline for industry to report their greenhouse gas emissions. (source)
- Extended the deadline for industry to report pollution data. (source)
- Delayed implementation of the clean fuel standard from January 2022 until an unspecified date later that year. The clean fuel standard is a major piece of Canada’s climate strategy, aiming to reduce the country’s carbon emissions by 30 million tonnes per year. The government has also delayed releasing the proposed regulation, which was supposed to be made public this spring, until the fall. (source)
- Delayed a planned plastics ban. (source)
- Suspended requirements for industry to report most normally required environmental data to the government, except drinking water and wastewater. Oftentimes, this data is a condition of the company’s permission to operate — requirements to report emissions of harmful air pollutants, or water levels in rivers companies draw from, for example. (source)
- Suspended the deadline for oil and gas companies to prove they had properly shut off wells that are no longer active. Wells that are not shut off properly can leak and cause risks to health and safety and the environment. (source)
- Suspended the requirement for companies operating coal mines to submit annual reports on their plans for the following year, the progress of work at the mine, progress on returning land to a natural state and work on finding new coal deposits. (source)
- Suspended requirements for companies operating oil and gas wells to report on the condition of wells, including checks on whether wells are functioning safely. The government says companies are “still required to report emergencies, including incidents, notifications, contraventions and releases that have or may have the potential to impact public safety or the environment.” (source)
- Suspended a broad section of requirements for oilsands companies to monitor environmental conditions. This includes reports on leaks or unusual releases of air emissions, the health of wetlands and wildlife and monitoring the deaths of birds on tailings ponds, where the toxic waste leftover from bitumen mining is stored. The government says these suspensions are “short-term” and “low-risk.” (source)
- Suspended requirements for all oil and gas companies to conduct a long list environmental monitoring activities, including checks on groundwater, soil, wildlife and tailings ponds. The government says these suspensions are “short-term” and “low-risk.” (source)
- Delayed collection of $65 million in oil and gas industry payments to cover the costs of cleaning up orphan wells. (source)
- Changed environmental protections that blocked coal mining from happening in the Foothills and Rockies. The government says similar protections will remain in place and environmentally sensitive and recreation areas will continue to be protected from coal development. (source)
- Invested C$1.5 billion in the Keystone XL pipeline, a project by TC Energy, formerly known as TransCanada. (source)
- Extended the deadline for large, industrial greenhouse gas emitters to submit compliance reports and their plans for reducing emissions. (source)
- Suspended the requirement for companies to immediately notify the government when they exceed certain air quality guidelines. Companies must still report them on a monthly basis and companies must still report other types of air quality exceedances. (source)
- Eliminated the requirement for cabinet to sign off on new oilsands projects. Now, proposals with the Alberta Energy Regulator's approval may go ahead. The same omnibus bill also eliminated Energy Efficiency Alberta, a government agency aimed at helping Albertans make their homes and businesses greener, and merged its responsibilities with another provincial body. (source) —Added June 11
- Expanded logging of the Sunshine Coast, including sensitive areas containing bear dens and some of the oldest trees in Canada. (source)
- Delayed a planned increase in the province’s carbon tax indefinitely. (source) — Added June 9
- Deferred the deadline for companies to pay $11 million in fees for the cleanup of orphaned oil and gas wells. (source)
- Deferred oil and gas companies’ annual levy on pipelines. (source)
- Deferred $80 million in timber harvesting fees paid by logging companies. (source)
- Decreased the levy companies pay to produce natural gas, a move meant to compensate for an increase in the orphan well levy which is currently suspended. (source)
- Delayed the deadline for paying the provincial carbon tax. (source)
- If companies are not able to comply with normal environmental rules due to COVID-19, they must notify the government and explain how it’s related to the pandemic — if so, the government will “take into consideration” the circumstances when dealing with the non-compliance. (source)
- Suspended funding to environmental groups to free up funds for health care. (source)
- Provincial Crown corporation Manitoba Hydro suspended and deferred some environmental monitoring. Bird monitoring along the Bipole III project that was supposed to start on May 4 began on May 12 instead, but an unseasonably cold spring appears to have delayed bird migration so that change will have “little to no effect on survey results,” Manitoba Hydro spokesperson Bruce Owen told National Observer. Environmental monitoring at the Keeyask Generating Station, 725 km north of Winnipeg on the lower Nelson River, is also deferred, including programs examining local water quality and adult sturgeon populations. “I’m unable to provide you a list” of all suspended programs, Owen said, noting that the monitoring was “not critical” and won’t affect Manitoba Hydro’s ability to meet its regulatory requirements. (National Observer) — Added June 16
- None found as of June 2, 2020.
Newfoundland and Labrador
- Delayed a plastic bag ban that was due to begin on July 1. It will now begin on Oct. 1. (source)
The Northwest Territories
- None found as of June 2, 2020.
- Put consultation on hold for a new piece of climate legislation. The legislation cannot move forward until public consultation is complete. (source)
- Deferred fees paid by industry for air emissions. (source)
- Deferred fees for onshore petroleum drilling applications. (source)
- Placed all planned wildlife research projects on hold. (source)
- Temporarily suspended part two of Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights, which gives the public a say in actions that affect the environment. As long as it is suspended, the government did not need to notify or consult the public on environment-related projects, changes or regulations, so it’s not clear what changes may have been be made during this period. The government also didn’t have to consider environmental values under the exemption. This change was revoked on June 15, 2020. (source) — updated June 16
- Allowed mining exploration permits to go ahead remotely in Northern Ontario, even as local First Nations say they don’t have the resources to review the applications and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic at the same time. (source)
- Delayed the deadline for industry to report their air emissions to government. (source)
- Issued a series of special zoning orders to approve development plans, circumventing the planning process and any potential opposition. (source)
- Without consultation, allowed petrochemical refineries to temporarily reduce the number of surveys conducted to detect leaky machinery. For 2020, companies may now conduct two checks instead of the usual three due to the effects of COVID-19. The number of mandatory inspections of storage tanks at petrochemical facilities are also reduced. (source) — added June 16
- Without consultation, allowed petroleum refineries to temporarily reduce the number of surveys conducted to detect leaky machinery, similar to the above. The number of mandatory inspections of storage tanks at petroleum facilities are also similarly reduced. (source) — added June 16
- Delayed the implementation of new rules on how to handle and dispose of excess soil dug up during construction by six months. (source) — added June 16
Prince Edward Island
- None found as of June 2, 2020
- Tabled a law that would allow infrastructure projects to skirt some environmental provisions. Bill 61, known as the “act to restart Quebec’s economy and to mitigate the consequences of the public health emergency,” gives the province the discretion to bypass environmental reforms introduced three years ago. It also would allow the government to allow companies to destroy fish and wildlife habitats if they pay a fee, rather than asking companies to avoid doing so or mitigate impacts on local ecosystems. Because the bill was tabled so late, the government needed consent from opposing parties in the legislature, but failed to reach a deal, meaning a decision on the measure is delayed until the fall. (source) —Added June 5, updated June 16
- Temporarily exempted companies from having to get an environmental approval to expand their production or provide a new product, if it’s related to a COVID-19 priority (source)
- Pause on pursuing penalties for companies who breach their environmental obligations, as long as the breach does not cause “significant risks” to the environment or to human health and safety (source)
- Limited field inspections, except in cases where there is a significant risk to the environment or human health and safety (source)
- Agreed to be lenient with enforcement when companies do not comply with environmental laws, as long as the companies are acting in good faith and can provide documentation showing that the non-compliance happened because of COVID-19. “There may also be situations where operations are unable to meet provincial standards on air emissions or industrial waste discharges, experience a discharge/spill within the province, or are unable to meet certain requirements related to providing safe drinking water. These situations will be managed differently, depending on the risk associated with the activity.” (source)
- Suspended enforcement of penalties for companies that do not report to the government on the condition and safety of oil and gas wells. Penalties for companies who do not immediately report incidents such as fires and leaks are also suspended (source)
- Temporarily exempted well operators from carrying out surveys to detect and fix leaks, as long as those leaks aren’t an imminent risk to the environment and/or human health (source)
- Deferred environmental monitoring programs and any requirements for industry to report data from those programs, as long as doing so wouldn’t pose an “imminent risk” of impacting the environment (source)
- Suspended the requirement for companies to report greenhouse gas emissions data on time (source)
- Suspended the requirement for mining and industrial operations to report “sampling and analysis” of environmental protection-related data, as long as the company can prove it was held back from doing so by COVID-19 and that the data is “not related to critical or immediate human health or environmental protection” (source)
- None found as of June 2, 2020
Editor's Note: This story was updated on June 5, 2020 at 5:27 p.m. to include a new change in Quebec and an update to a federal change. It was also updated on June 9, 2020 to include changes to logging on B.C.'s sunshine coast, and on June 11 to include changes from an omnibus bill in Alberta. It was updated again on June 16, 2020 to include changes in Ontario and Manitoba and an update to a Quebec change.