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Alberta’s energy watchdog has temporarily suspended a swath of environmental requirements for oil and gas sites, including programs that monitor soil, water, wildlife, firebreaks and greenhouse gas emissions.

The Alberta Energy Regulator explained in a written decision the changes resulted from oil and gas companies saying they could not meet monitoring requirements while complying with COVID-19 public-health orders.

The new directives, posted to the regulator’s website Wednesday afternoon, come almost a week after bars, restaurants, retail stores, barbers and museums started reopening across Alberta, and two months after oil sands operations were declared an essential service by the provincial government.

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Regulator spokesperson Shawn Roth said in an e-mail the temporary changes will have a low impact on environmental and public safety.

“We have only provided temporary measures that are supported by technical experts, do not impact the AER’s ability to fulfill its mandate, and are a low risk to have short- or long-term impacts,” he said.

Alberta’s Official Opposition Leader Rachel Notley called this week’s decision “utterly idiotic.”

Jess Sinclair, press secretary to Alberta Environment Minister Jason Nixon, said only low-risk reporting and monitoring requirements were being suspended.“Companies must immediately report emergencies, including incidents, notifications, contraventions, and releases that have or may have the potential to impact public safety or the environment,” she said in an email.

Under the new rules, energy companies no longer have to test surface water or soil “with the exception of any monitoring that is necessary to protect human health and ecological receptors."

Groundwater monitoring is also gone – but must resume by Sept. 30 – and water no longer has to be lab-tested if it’s released into the environment.

Companies are also off the hook when it comes to programs run by third parties to monitor and detect emissions and leaks, as well as repairs to fix those problems. Methane monitoring requirements for the oil sands, however, are still in place.

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Wetland and wildlife monitoring and research are also suspended – including programs that use cameras and acoustic recording devices to remotely assess the presence of animals – as is the need to monitor firebreaks created by oil sands operators during the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire.

Programs to monitor the environmental reclamation of oil and gas sites are suspended as well.

Aside from the September date to resume groundwater testing, none of the temporary directives comes with an end date.

Laying the blame for the decision with Premier Jason Kenney, she said Thursday the regulator’s move was a “cynical and exploitative” use of the pandemic that would damage the industry’s reputation by turning Alberta into the “Wild West of environmental protection.”

“We have a government that’s telling hairdressers that it’s okay to go and get close enough to people to cut their hair, but somehow oil and gas companies and environmental safety officers cannot go to a lake and check the water to see if there are carcinogens in it,” she said.

The move follows similar directives in ministerial orders made by Alberta’s United Conservative government last month, which suspended a host of leak and flaring reporting requirements.

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Shaun Fluker, a University of Calgary professor of resource law, said the list of exemptions is similar to the long-time wish list of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. He suggested the pandemic is being used as an excuse to grant concessions.

Mel Grandjamb, Chief of the Fort McKay First Nation, said the move was made without consultation, despite the fact his band is in the middle of the oil sands region.

With files from The Canadian Press

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