First Nations worried by suspension of oilsands environmental monitoring

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EDMONTON — The leader of a First Nation surrounded by oilsands development is frustrated by the Alberta Energy Regulator’s decision to suspend a wide array of environmental reporting requirements.

“We are surprised and disappointed there was no effort to consult us on this decision,” said a release from Mel Grandjamb, chief of the Fort McKay First Nation.

Grandjamb points out the regulator’s new boss, Laurie Pushor, has emphasized in recent interviews that he wants to rebuild trust in the agency and improve its relations with Indigenous communities.

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“It is unfortunate that aspiration has not translated into actually talking to those communities deeply affected by AER decisions,” he wrote Thursday.

Fort McKay, north of Fort McMurray in the heart of the oilsands, is surrounded on three sides by development. Its concerns about the impact of that are long-standing.

The regulator has relieved Imperial Oil, Syncrude, Suncor and Canadian Natural Resources of the responsibility to meet environmental monitoring conditions in their operating licences.

In an email, regulator spokesman Shawn Roth said the situation with COVID-19 was moving quickly and the agency had to respond to industry requests.

“We do not have the option of relying on a best-case scenario for our province to recover from COVID-19,” he said. 

Conditions suspended include on-site monitoring studies under the Fort McKay Air Quality and Odours Project. Odour assessment and communication protocols already in place are to remain.

Other exemptions include most monitoring of ground and surface water, unless it enters the environment.

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Almost all wildlife and bird monitoring, often done by remote cameras, is suspended, as is testing for leaks of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

Wetlands monitoring and research is gone. Water that escapes from storm ponds no longer must be tested.

Some programs are to resume by the end of September, but most have no restart date.

Roth said essential monitoring continues.

“Companies are still required to collect monitoring data and we continue to provide oversight of energy-related operations. Companies must report emergencies … that have or may have the potential to impact public safety or the environment.”

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The moves were needed, said Suncor spokeswoman Erin Rees.

“We made requests to the AER to postpone some monitoring in order to protect workers and the public from COVID-19 and specifically to ensure public-health guidance is respected.

“All requests for postponement of monitoring were due to the number of people required to perform the work, impacting our ability to ensure physical distancing.”

Grandjamb said Fort McKay understands the need for adjustments. Still, he’s skeptical.

“We also have questions about the length of these ‘temporary exemptions’ and would like more clarity about a return to responsible environmental monitoring.”   

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Grandjamb said some operators have assured him that monitoring will continue.

“We hope they remain committed to sharing that data in light of the AER’s decision.”

Alberta Energy spokesman Kavi Bal said the regulator’s decisions are supported by an order from minister Sonya Savage.

“Temporary suspensions will result in minor impacts to data … or a delay in some auditing activities,” he wrote in an email. “Monitoring a bit less frequently for a period of time will not hamper the regulator’s ability to understand long-term trends and impacts.”

Grandjamb isn’t the only Indigenous leader with concerns. Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation said Wednesday the regulator’s decision threw out 12 years of work.  

“It just seems like they’ve put all that to waste,” he said.

Adam said the regulator’s decisions may lead to more legal action by First Nations.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 7, 2020

— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

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