Three northeastern Alberta First Nations have jointly filed an appeal to the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) over its decision to suspend key aspects of environmental monitoring in the oilsands during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the regulator has fought back, noting that any temporary suspensions would represent just 2% – 5% of overall monitoring requirements.
Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Fort McKay First Nation and Mikisew Cree First Nation stated in their appeal that they face potential health and environmental impacts and they were not consulted by the AER about the monitoring suspension. The chiefs of the First Nations say they learned about the suspensions through media reports.
“Unfortunately, the language of the suspensions is too vague to determine their extent and what, if any, protections remain in place,” the First Nations wrote in their joint appeal. “Meanwhile, production continues with no clear oversight into the impacts on health and the environment or an end date established for many suspensions.”
Some of the monitoring suspensions, which affect oilsands and in situ mines, as well as conventional oil and gas projects, will end on September 30, but many others have no end date.
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Bill 22, The Red Tape Reduction Implementation Act, 2020, which recently had its First Reading, eliminates the need for provincial cabinet authorization for approval of new oilsands projects and related processing facilities.
“We acknowledge there may be environmental and health impacts arising from development, but we cannot protect our members or our territories from those impacts if they are not detected,” Allan Adam, chief of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, said in a statement, noting that monitoring conditions “are part of the compromise that we make with industry.”
In response to public criticism, the AER has stated that a clear conflict exists between complying with the Alberta government’s public health orders and complying with its own environmental monitoring and reporting requirements.
“A short-term exemption to environmental monitoring would only be provided if it would not seriously jeopardize our ability to protect environmental health and maintain public safety,” AER officials said in a statement.
The AER deferred to Alberta’s Chief Scientist, Dr. Fred Wrona, who says that temporary suspensions in select environmental monitoring programs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic are low-risk and “should not significantly compromise the integrity of Alberta’s long-term environmental information systems.”
Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley, who has described the monitoring suspension as “idiotic rationale”, has since joined the First Nation voices in a call for the government to resume all environmental monitoring.
“We have a government that is telling hairdressers that it is O.K. to get close enough to people to cut their hair, but somehow oil and gas companies and environmental safety officers can’t go to a lake and check the water to see if there are carcinogens in it?” Notley asked in a public statement on the AER monitoring suspension.
Some eco-action groups have warned of a push to rollback environmental laws in the name of economic recovery during the pandemic.
Stage 2 of Alberta’s reopening process during the pandemic began June 12. AER officials said they will review the updated public health direction and reassess how to adjust temporary suspensions to align with that direction.