Environmental reporting rules in Alberta modified during COVID-19 outbreak

By Jeff Wiehler

Three ministerial orders introduced at the end of March modified environmental reporting requirements in Alberta, citing challenges of complying with routine reporting during the COVID-19 outbreak. Following those ministerial orders, the Alberta Energy Regulator released two decisions on May 20 to suspend operators' monitoring requirements due to health and safety concerns during the pandemic.

On March 17, the Alberta government declared a state of public health emergency, giving the authority for ministerial orders to suspend or modify existing regulations if they are deemed to not be in the public interest.  

The Minister of Environment and Parks Jason Nixon introduced three ministerial orders on March 30 and 31 that were related to environmental monitoring:

  • Ministerial order 15/2020: Defers submission deadlines (from March 31 to June 30) for compliance reports and emission reduction plans under the Technology Innovation and Emissions Reduction Regulation.
  • Ministerial order 16/2020: Defers submission deadlines (from March 31 to June 30) for reports under the Renewable Fuel Standard Regulation.
  • Ministerial order 17/2020: Suspends various environmental reporting requirements.

All three orders will remain in effect until August 14, 2020, unless they are continued or terminated and depending on the state of public health emergency.  

Shaun Fluker, associate professor at the University of Calgary, explained the “potential impact” of ministerial order 17/2020 in an article for the Canadian Bar Association published on May 20:

“Industry self-reporting is an essential component of the information gathering, monitoring and compliance functions of a regulatory authority. It also helps to ensure non-compliance events are remedied with compliance measures before these events become regulatory offences with serious human health and environmental impacts,” writes Fluker. 

Many approvals issued under environmental regulations include reporting requirements and thresholds.

“Under the terms of Order 17/2020, it is not clear whether suspended reports will ever be submitted to regulatory authorities. The order states that information collected in relation to reporting requirements during the suspension period must be made available to regulatory authorities upon request.”

In a letter to the provincial government from the Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA), conservation specialist Joanna Skrajny questioned when suspended reports will be required to be submitted and how the backlog will be managed.

“AWA fears that this M.O. will encourage approvals holders to increase environmentally risky activities and to cut corners with data gathering.”

Alberta was the first province in Canada to amend environmental legislation during the coronavirus pandemic – but it is not the only province. On April 1, Ontario passed a regulation to reduce public consultation requirements under the province’s Environmental Bill of Rights

Randy Christensen, lawyer with Ecojustice, responded to the measures in both provinces in an article on April 8 and concluded “these recent moves to weaken environmental reporting and standards pose, in effect, a different kind of public health threat.”

On May 20, two Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) decisions suspended monitoring and monitoring-related activities to nearly all oil and gas companies and projects in the province. 

  • AER Decision 20200520A: Suspends the requirements for monitoring and activities incidental to monitoring for 61 projects.
  • AER Decision 20200520B: Suspends the requirements for monitoring and activities incidental to monitoring for operators.

The suspensions will remain in effect until otherwise directed by the regulator. 

In a Global News article on May 21, former AER chief scientist Monique Dubé noted the suspensions come at a time when the province is considering reopening plans.

“We’re talking about protection of people and the environment from acute incidents that could affect environmental health and human health in the short term,” said Dubé to Global News

“On one hand, we’ve got reopening plans, well underway, including conversations related to the NHL, where precautions could be taken. On the other hand, we are basically at 95 per cent of what the AER regulates — all of its environmental monitoring — has been suspended under the umbrella of COVID-19, which seems like a major inconsistency to me.”


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