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Water tainted with dangerous levels of arsenic, dissolved metals and hydrocarbons seeped from the Kearl Oil Sands project, near Fort McMurray, began seeping into the environment in May 2022, but no one was told until another leak occurred in February 2023.Larry MacDougal/The Canadian Press

It will be at least another year before Canadians know exactly what went wrong at Imperial Oil Ltd.’s IMO-T Kearl oil sands facility to send water laced with toxins into the environment, as the Alberta Energy Regulator overhauls how it responds when faced with emergency incidents.

On Tuesday, Laurie Pushor, chief executive officer of the AER, faced the House of Commons environment committee over the Kearl disaster for the second time. Water tainted with dangerous levels of arsenic, dissolved metals and hydrocarbons seeped from the site in Northern Alberta into the environment for more than a year starting in May, 2022, but no local communities were told until a separate incident in February this year spilled 5.3 million litres of wastewater.

Two months ago, a report conducted by the accounting firm Deloitte concluded that although the regulator’s staff adhered to procedures in response to the spills at Kearl, those policies were not in line with current standards and the expectations of external stakeholders, including First Nations.

The report recommended a host of changes, and Mr. Pushor told MPs on the committee that most of them will be completed over the course of 2024.

That includes improving communication processes and updating the regulator’s website to make it more user-friendly and less difficult to find easy-to-understand information.

“This work plan will be managed out of the CEO’s office to ensure that across the AER, there’s no misunderstanding about the urgency and importance of getting this work done,” he said.

Mr. Pushor said the AER has already implemented various changes on an interim basis as it finalizes its new policies, including providing more information to stakeholders, but it is still in conversations with First Nations.

“Understanding what incidents matter to communities will be an important part of helping build some guidance so that we can interact in a more fulsome way,” he said.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith said Tuesday that her United Conservative government is in the process of its own internal review of the regulator to see how it can be improved. She expects the report by the end of the year.

“I don’t want to prejudge the outcome on it, but we do know that there are issues with the Alberta Energy Regulator,” she told media.

“We want to be fair in how we assess them and also look at recommendations, but it is an independent regulator. We have to make sure – because they have quasi-judicial powers – that we’re not interfering in that independence.”

Energy Minister Brian Jean added that the government expects the AER “to be honest with Albertans, and make sure that they do so immediately, not sometime months later.”

Mr. Pushor last testified to the committee in April, when he offered little information to questions from MPs about who knew what, and when.

On Tuesday, he once again declined to answer various questions specific to Kearl, citing the regulator’s continuing enforcement investigation, which he expects will take another 12 to 16 months to complete.

In the wake of Kearl and as Alberta’s problem of inactive oil and gas liabilities continues to grow, the AER has faced criticism that it needs to be more transparent and less beholden to the industry that it regulates.

Quebec Liberal MP Sophie Chatel asked Mr. Pushor what the AER can do better to improve transparency, be more independent from industry and enforce environmental standards.

Mr. Pushor said that the AER is committed to the highest level of transparency possible, and he added to Ms. Chatel that he “would also challenge your opening suggestion that industry will not meet those high standards unless someone compels them to.”

Ms. Chatel replied that this was “exactly the kind of comment” that worried her, adding that it was “naïve” to think companies are beholden to the environment over their boards, shareholders and optimizing profits.

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