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Recent environmental monitoring exemptions for the oil sands have been broadened to include Alberta’s entire energy industry.

The Alberta Energy Regulator says the decisions, posted Wednesday on its website, are in response to public-health concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.

They were made to protect those doing the monitoring and the communities they work in, said the regulator’s vice-president, Martin Foy.

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“These activities were moving a lot of people from jurisdictions that maybe were a higher risk to smaller communities and potentially putting those communities at risk,” he said Thursday.

“We have assessed the risk associated with the suspensions and found it to be very low.”

The list of suspensions is long.

Companies no longer have to monitor fumes released by burning, or look for and repair leaks of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Surface waters need no longer be tested, unless they escape into the environment – and that water need no longer be tested in a lab.

Soil and groundwater monitoring is gone, “with the exception of any monitoring that is necessary to protect human health and ecological receptors,” the decisions say.

Those efforts must resume by Sept. 30, the only suspensions with a sunset date.

“We didn’t want to create an expectation amongst industry that (the suspensions) couldn’t be lifted at any time,” said Foy.

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In situ oil sands operations no longer have to conduct any wildlife monitoring, including research programs and population estimates. That includes remotely operated monitoring, although bird deterrents must remain in place.

“These are events that require contractors from outside of Alberta going up to the facilities, installing the equipment and maintaining the equipment,” Foy said.

Reclamation and wetland monitoring is also suspended, as are research requirements.

The Opposition New Democrats suggested the pandemic was being used as a cover for changes the industry has long sought.

“This has nothing to do with COVID-19,” said environment critic Marlin Schmidt. “This is a sneaky and underhanded attempt by Jason Kenney and his UCP government to push their outdated and extreme ideological agenda forward under the shadow of a pandemic.”

Foy denied that charge.

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“I would 100 per cent say that isn’t the case.”

Mel Grandjamb, chief of the Fort McKay First Nation, said earlier this month that the oil sands decision was made without consultation, despite his band being in the middle of the region.

The federal and Ontario governments have suspended requirements to report data because of COVID-19, but it must still be collected.

Keith Stewart of Greenpeace Canada has said his group isn’t aware of any other jurisdiction in the world that has gone as far as Alberta to roll back environmental protections during the pandemic, including the United States under President Donald Trump.

Foy suggested that’s because Alberta’s monitoring requirements are more stringent than elsewhere.

“We have requirements at the AER that are world-leading. Other jurisdictions might not have the same.”

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