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Shaun Fluker, University of Calgary

COVID-19 leads Alberta to suspend environmental reporting requirements

Tuesday, April 14, 2020 @ 9:19 AM | By Ian Burns

Citing the COVID-19 pandemic, the Alberta government has moved to suspend a number of environmental reporting requirements, but a legal expert is saying that, although businesses will still be required to maintain their records, it could mean that people in the province will not know whether standards are being complied with.

The order from Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon suspends the reporting requirements contained in terms and conditions for approvals or registrations under the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, licences or approvals under the Water Act and dispositions under the Public Lands Act. Nixon cited hardship in having to comply with routine reporting requirements and said continuing to report was not in the public interest during the public health emergency in the province, which was declared March 17. Drinking and wastewater facilities are not subject to the order.

Approval, registration, licence and disposition holders are still required to record and retain complete information relating to any reporting or return requirements, with the records having to be made available to the Ministry or Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) upon request. The order lapses Aug. 14, or earlier if terminated by the minister or provincial cabinet.

Nixon’s press secretary Jess Sinclair said the changes “were about deadlines for filing paperwork — not about environmental standards.”

“Complete environmental data related to these routine reporting obligations is required to be maintained and to be made available upon request,” she said. “The filing of this paperwork will happen as normal. Operators are still required to fully comply with all other environmental regulations during this period and report any unauthorized releases to the environmental and dangerous goods emergencies (EDGE) line.”

Alberta has also deferred submission deadlines for compliance and emission reduction plan reports under the provincial technology innovation and emissions reduction regulation, and the renewable fuel standards regulation. The deadlines for those reports are moved from March 31 to June 30.

By taking these steps, Sinclair said the government is enabling industry to focus on the health and safety of its staff.

“The disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented. We are giving operators more time to get routine information to us during the COVID pandemic, as some of their staff are self-isolating or otherwise working from home in accordance with the recommendations of the chief medical officer of health,” she said. “We have heard from multiple organizations that this is something they are struggling with and want to do what we can to work with Albertans to ensure that no one is feeling compelled to come to work unless strictly necessary.”

Shaun Fluker, University of Calgary law professor

But Shaun Fluker, who teaches environmental law at the University of Calgary, said the idea of the regulatory system relying on self-reporting “really can’t be underestimated.”

“Governments in the modern era regularly issue approvals on the basis of uncertain knowledge in some cases, as we really don’t know exactly what all the impacts are going to be,” he said. “The monitoring and reporting feature of these approvals is really our way of not just supervising the activity of the approval holder, but it also a way for us to learn about what it is we are doing or what we should be doing differently.”

As a result of the suspension, Fluker said people are not necessarily going to know whether standards are being complied with, and in some cases “we are also going to rob ourselves of information about whether we got it right when we issued the approval in the first place.”

“I think what that really emphasizes is that the duration of this order is crucially important — if this order carries on for the balance of 2020 then we are talking about a sizable gap,” he said. “It’s pretty obvious from what we are being told by public health officials that not only do we not know the duration of the current lockdown, it also seems increasingly likely that we will have to do this again even if we ease restrictions — so the danger with orders like this is there is going to be a temptation to leave it in place until we are really in the clear. It is essentially robbing the regulatory system to do effective monitoring and compliance, and it could stay that way for a very long time.”

Fluker said he hopes operators will continue to file reports voluntarily.

“As the minister points out, the order doesn’t relieve industry from actually having to monitor and collect information,” he said. “I would hope in many cases the operators who are doing that realize the extra step of having to assemble that information and provide it to Alberta would continue to do so.”

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