Citing the coronavirus epidemic, the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) indefinitely suspended 19 environmental monitoring requirements for oil sands producers such as Syncrude, Suncor, Imperial Oil, and CNRL. These decisions were made after the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) penned a lengthy letter to the Canadian government. In that letter were several requests for the environmental and pollution monitoring requirements to be put on hold. These requirements were described as “low-risk regulatory obligations.”
The AER’s decisions are published here. In one such decision, number 20200501A, the AER declared a state of public health emergency due to both the coronavirus and the likelihood of the flu hitting, while stating that Imperial Oil Resources Limited (Imperial) raised legitimate concerns about its ability to follow monitoring requirements.
Mandy Olsgard, a risk assessment specialist and former senior environmental toxicologist with the AER, told The Narwhal, “It’s quite shocking and it is quite concerning.” For some monitoring, she explains that “losing this data for a very short amount of time might not affect the overall datasets, but some of these clauses are there to understand potential and acute risks to health or the environment.”
She and a few others have the sentiment that this decision reads like a “wish list” from CAPP. Shawn Roth, an AER spokesperson, said the AER is “in regular contact with industry, including industry groups such as CAPP and [the Explorers and Producers Association of Canada], as we work together to navigate through the current situation.”
CBC reported that a few days before bird monitoring programs were suspended, Imperial Oil found dozens of dead grebes and shorebirds in their tailings ponds. However, companies such as Syncrude and Suncor told The Narwhal that these suspensions were necessary for the protection of public health during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. A spokesperson for Syncrude, Will Gibson, told The Narwhal, “We understand and know the public expects us to responsibly develop the oil sands, which includes monitoring for potential impacts, but we also want people to recognize that we’re relying on the guidance of Alberta Health Services.”
The Narwhal broke down 8 environmental responsibilities that Alberta’s oil and gas companies can stop doing because of the coronavirus:
- Reporting “routine” emissions of sulfur dioxide at sour gas plants.
- Meeting the deadline for making inactive oil and gas wells compliant with safety rules.
- Telling the AER how much water is being taken from rivers for fracking.
- Submitting annual data on how much wastewater is going into oil sands tailings ponds.
- Reporting on how much ammonia nitrogen is in an industrial runoff.
- Paying levies owed to the AER.
- Monitoring birds at tailing ponds.
- Submitting logs on the state of well casings that protect drinking water.
These are just 8 of those 19 requirements that have been suspended.
The Goal Is To Keep People Safe
In Canada, the oil and gas industry is being considered essential during the time of the coronavirus pandemic. The goal of Jason Nixon, Minister of Environment and Parks, is to “keep people working … in the oil and gas industry … safe and within the requirements the chief medical officer has set out.” Referring to the cleanup of inactive and orphan oil and gas wells, he also said that, “We believe we can do that on lots of projects.”
Barry Robinson, an attorney with Ecojustice, was left wondering why environmental monitoring in the oil sands can’t be done safely as well. “If the operation is running, the monitoring should be running,” he told The Narwhal. Another point was mentioned by Fluker: “The province is okay with letting Cargill operate.” For those who are outside of the area, Cargill had the largest single outbreak of COVID-19 in Canada in its meat-packing facility. In other words, the message was: if that can go on, this should too.
My 2.5 Cents
The idea that a meat factory can operate despite having an outbreak of the very virus cited as an excuse to go lax on safety and environmental regulations is a bit senseless. I know that meat is essential, but so is oil and gas, according to the same standard, and that doesn’t mean environmental standards around oil and gas should be thrown out the window. Even if the industry is essential, it doesn’t make sense to disregard safety protocols that are set up to protect the environment and our health.
Or perhaps oil sands and oil production shouldn’t be considered essential at this moment since we have an oversupply of oil already. Just last month we reported on oil tankers lurking off the California coast because they’ve got nowhere to go. That oil has been in the ground for millions of years. I think it can wait a little while longer, especially since this pandemic has shown that this illusion of “not enough oil” is just that.