Updated: On June 23, 2020 the AER announced a resumption of environmental monitoring requirements beginning July 15. The decision follows calls from environmental and Indigenous leaders for the Federal Environment Minister to intervene. Alberta’s Environment Minister, Jason Nixon, has linked the reinstatement to the provincial reopening strategy.
“Now that the public health emergency is no longer in effect and Alberta is reopening as part of our Phase 2 relaunch, the industry can resume business while keeping communities and employees safe.” – Jason Nixon
As the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to rise, the Alberta Energy Regulator has temporarily suspended some environmental monitoring requirements for all oil and gas operations.
Listed under the recently announced Ministerial Order 219/2020, all deliverability, annual and initial reservoir pressure surveys for resource conservation including enhanced oil recovery, disposal, and oil and gas production depletion strategy under the Oil and Gas Conservation Act has now been suspended until the foreseeable future.
The Alberta Energy Regulator has also made the decision to suspend almost all Wildlife Monitoring, annual reporting required under section 65 of the Coal Conservation Rules, exploration reporting requirements under section 40 of the Coal Conservation Rules and all plans specific within approval conditions under the Coal Conservation Act (except conditions in relation to geotechnical reporting requirements).
While these suspensions were put into place to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and protect the health and safety of workers, there is concern that environmental projects will be impacted. Companies are still required to meet their obligations under permits or compliance requirements for activities other than monitoring. The best-case scenario would be for oil and gas companies to continue meeting environmental obligations even if some monitoring programs have been suspended.
“Industry must continue to report as directed in compliance and enforcement orders and fulfill all requirements where temporary relief has not been provided. They must also continue to report emergencies, including incidents, notifications, contraventions, and releases that have or may have the potential to impact the environment or public safety “ – AER
While some provisions have been made for minimal ongoing monitoring, both the oil and gas industry as well as other related services will inevitably end up playing catch-up in terms of the significant loss of data required for reporting and compliance. This data ultimately assists with the formation of policy and planning and could impact efforts for areas like conservation and wildlife management.
Notably, Alberta had recently deemed “environmental services for agriculture, mining, oil and gas” as essential services quite recently. The changes, while temporary, from the AER, may prove controversial with service providers and stakeholders who rely on environmental monitoring work.
“It is difficult to understand how suspending environmental monitoring from now until September can increase the viability of any business. Why invest Alberta’s environmental or any other capital in a business that is hanging by such a thin thread?
Further, it appears that the AER is now in the business of picking winners. If employment within Alberta is about to become a game of Survivor, can I get onto the Tribal Council please?” – Richard Enns, P.Eng., EP
What has Changed?
Impacts to Site Assessment and Monitoring Work
The suspension of all groundwater and soil monitoring programs with minimal exceptions has the potential to significantly impact companies that provide environmental consulting services within Alberta. The AER has determined that at least one monitoring event must occur in 2020; however, in the case of soil sampling, they indicate that “reducing monitoring to one event per year is considered low risk” and in the case of groundwater monitoring the determination is that “missing one sampling event is considered low risk” as baseline conditions are pre-established.
The only exceptions are monitoring that is deemed necessary for the protection of human health.
Third-party contractors that provide LDAR programs are temporarily prohibited from conducting them; methane monitoring must still proceed.
Impacts to Wildlife Monitoring Work
Some wildlife monitoring work will still go ahead. Special provisions have been made to protect migratory and non-migratory birds by keeping deterrents in place near tailing ponds.
Other wildlife monitoring programs – specifically those that use cameras or acoustic recording and other remotely operated techniques – have been suspended and “the loss of one season of data” has been determined as low-risk.
Economic and Labour Market Implications of Monitoring and Reporting Suspensions
While these measures have been listed as providing relief for an already beleaguered oil and gas sector, there is a strong possibility that these decisions will have repercussions on those that provide services to the sector. It’s too early to tell what the knock-on effect will be, but certainly, consultants and other goods and services providers will be watching closely to see how this unfolds.
If Alberta’s environmental services sector has not already seen direct impacts to monitoring projects, they likely will in the coming days and weeks. Without the billable hours that these crucial projects provide, the ability to maintain staffing levels may be an early victim of these relief measures.
While this may provide some temporary relief to oil and gas producers, it will likely have the opposite effect on those that carry out this work.
In addition, the oil and gas industry, as well as other related industries, will potentially be losing a significant amount of data and reporting information that would otherwise be critical to forming policy decisions on active and historical sites, and on other environmental effects such as conservation and wildlife management.
Given that environmental consulting was considered an “essential service” not long ago, the measures ta
en by the AER may prove controversial with other stakeholders. Media outlets are already using the suspensions to feed the narrative that the Government of Alberta is avoiding environmental responsibilities.
Beyond the negative reactions, some of the suspensions seem questionable in the context of preventing Covid-19 exposure and that “the public health orders pose a challenge in completing the monitoring activity”.
Additional Occupational Health and Safety measures could be put into effect to mitigate the risk to workers or public health. Specifically, some monitoring activities can be completed either by a single worker, or by having minimal staff on-site.
In addition, environmental monitors are already required to use PPE on the majority of sites; the addition of wearing a mask (if not already mandated) would be minimal. The potential for exposure would be less than that of workers in other sectors that have either remained open or been permitted to reopen e.g. retail staff, restaurant workers and others whose jobs either remained classified as “essential” or have been permitted to return to work under the current phased reopening structure.