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Alberta’s New Normal: Trashing Pollution Protections

By some strange contagious logic, regulators kill public safeguards and blame the virus.

Andrew Nikiforuk 23 May

Tyee contributing editor Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist whose books and articles focus on epidemics, the energy industry, nature and more.

On the very day Premier Jason Kenney deemed it safe again to play hockey in Edmonton, the Alberta Energy Regulator released two more decisions basically saying the tribulations of COVID-19 meant it wasn’t safe to do environmental monitoring.

That, added to previous pronouncements, means Alberta has now suspended all environmental reporting and monitoring in its oil patch. Most of the orders provide no timeline for resuming such obligations.

It’s the new normal in Kenney’s troubled petro state. The rollbacks started with the suspension of requiring companies to submit environmental reporting on mine sites and the like. But they didn’t stop there.

Now companies don’t even have to do any bothersome environmental monitoring.

A person might conclude from these fiats — unique in the world except for Donald Trump’s America — that doing environmental reporting monitoring might somehow cause or spread the pandemic. That’s how preposterous things have become in addled Alberta.

The first wave of rollbacks arrived in mid-March with ministerial orders issued by Energy Minister Sonya Savage and Environment Minister Jason Nixon.

Nixon had earlier announced the closing of 20 provincial parks and removal of another 164 protected areas from the parks list out of budget concerns. Apparently Alberta is so broke, it can’t afford parks anymore.

This logic is contagious: if the province can’t afford parks, it only follows that the industry can’t afford environmental reporting.

In three separate ministerial orders, Nixon suspended reporting requirements contained in the Water Act, the Public Lands Act, the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, and the Technology Innovation and Emission Reduction Regulation.

For good measure, Minister Savage also suspended the requirements in another three pieces of legislation.

As a result, coal mine owners don’t have to report on coal mines; oil and gas companies don’t have to submit annual reports; and oilsands miners don’t have to worry about annual mining plans and such.

Kenney’s government explained that corporations were suffering during the pandemic, and it was the government’s duty to alleviate suffering. “Many employers are dealing with reduced workforces due to the pandemic,” said one government spokesperson.

“Monitoring must still take place, but we are removing reporting deadlines to accommodate.” The only industry exempt from Kenney’s reporting holiday were drinking water facilities; they couldn’t skip their monitoring.

Because most industry self-reports to government, the suspension orders effectively meant the cessation of any compliance or enforcement measures in the province.

After the ministers axed reporting requirements, the Alberta Energy Regulator went further by deciding to suspend monitoring. And so more contagious logic prevailed. If industry doesn’t have to report on the environment, why continue monitoring of air, water and soil and wildlife?

In April the regulator told more than a dozen oilsand open pit mining companies including Syncrude and Suncor not to worry about stack testing or fugitive emissions or volatile organic compounds or on-site monitoring for air quality in Fort McKay during the pandemic.

The regulator explained it found “it necessary and appropriate to balance the need for monitoring of environmental conditions with the need to ensure public safety and safety of essential workers during this public health emergency.”

It should be noted that regulator has seen its credibility undercut by scandal. The agency’s last director, Jim Ellis, resigned last year in disgrace. Three separate investigations later found certain members of the regulator’s management team were guilty of mismanagement, the misuse of millions of public dollars and conflict of interest.

The regulator’s newly appointed CEO, Laurie Pushor, played a central role in a Saskatchewan government scandal in 2013. Under Pushor’s watch the province bought land at a cost far more than it was worth. The deal cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

Now Pushor heads a regulator that doesn’t think environmental monitoring of an industry prone to leaks, explosions and accidents is important during a pandemic.

The regulator’s relaxation of environmental monitoring in the oilsands dumbfounded First Nations who live downstream of the patch, which has sorely impacted the health of the Peace-Athabasca Delta.

“Environmental monitoring and protection are critical elements of oilsands operations that should never be considered optional,” Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation said in a press release.

“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 added. “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.”

Nevertheless, Alberta galloped farther down the trail of becoming, in the words of former premier Rachel Notley, “the wild west of environmental protection.”

The province next rescinded its coal mining rules for the southern foothills because an Australian coal magnate, Gina Rinehart, wants to dig up 2,800 hectares north of the Crowsnest* Pass for metallurgical coal thanks to giveaway royalties.

Rinehart doesn’t believe in climate change so her business should fit in well in a province that cancels environmental reporting and monitoring.

At least Energy Minister Savage knows who she works for, and it’s not clean mountain water and Albertans who depend on it: “We will continue to make common-sense decisions to create certainty and flexibility for industry” she said.

According to the Alberta Wilderness Association, the “policy change, made without any public consultation, has the potential to open up over 4.7 million hectares of environmentally sensitive lands to boom-and-bust coal developments, further jeopardizing headwaters integrity, wildlife security and the recovery of species at risk.”

Next came an end to environmental monitoring. One order applied to all oil and gas operators and apologized for not naming them all. The decision explained “that is not practical to name all of the Operators individually that are affected by this decision because of the large number of Operators.”

Here’s what so large a number of operators don’t have to worry about anymore: sulphur monitoring and methane leak detection programs; surface water quality testing and soil monitoring. All groundwater monitoring “with the exception of any monitoring that is necessary to protect human health,” has also been suspended.

And the suspensions remain “in effect immediately and remain in effect until otherwise directed by the Alberta Energy Regulator.” Apparently that order wasn’t comprehensive enough so the regulator issued another separate decision for about 30 in situ oilsands projects.

These high greenhouse gas emitters burn natural gas to boil water and inject steam into bitumen underground in order to pump the melted crude out.

Now these firms don’t have to concern themselves with certain kinds of monitoring for greenhouse gases, pesky wildlife, surface water quality or firebreak monitoring outside their leases.

Methane monitoring, however, still has to be performed (but not reported) and one wonders why this terrible encumbrance was not lifted also.

The suspension of environment reporting and monitoring all falls in line with demands made by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

On March 27, the powerful lobby group wrote the federal government and asked Ottawa to do what Alberta was already doing. The rationale of oil lobbyists was predictable. “CAPP also recommends that, during this time of crisis, governments adopt a do no harm principle with respect to regulations and the costs they impose on industry.”

CAPP seems to forget that the regulations are there in the first place to protect the public from industry abuse.

They ensure, when periodically enforced, that industry does no harm to air, water, wildlife and people living next door to their polluting operations.

In any case, Premier Kenney has divided his province into two unequal classes of workers on the province’s petroleum farm. There are ordinary workers who make sacrifices, pay taxes and follow the rules. And then there are the anointed who get to sit out a pandemic on the coach of unaccountability.

The anointed, of course, belong to the indebted oil and gas industry. The blessed, or at least their employers, get billions in subsidies as well as corporate tax and royalty breaks and access to pension funds to shore up their companies’ faltering finances.

It is even okay if the anointed don’t pay hundreds of millions of dollars owed to municipalities in basic taxes. Or clean up $260 billion worth of aging wells and pipelines and tailing ponds.

And now, they don’t have to fuss with bothersome environmental reporting and monitoring. Who needs protections for nature and people’s health if they get in the way of oil and gas and mining interests? Get rid of them. In Alberta, that’s the new normal.

*Story updated on May 25 at 2:41 p.m. to correct the name of the mentioned region.  [Tyee]

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