When the Alberta government announced a sweeping suspension of environmental rules to almost all companies in the province’s oil and gas industry in the spring of 2020, it claimed it would continue “all” critical monitoring activities needed to protect public health, the environment and to prepare for emergencies.

But a recent report from a provincial watchdog indicates those claims were inaccurate. The report, released by the Alberta Energy Regulator, reveals how the temporary rule suspensions, meant to offer companies coronavirus relief, wound up disrupting the province’s fight against climate change.

The regulator posted the report online in early 2022, but it has not provided any in-depth commentary or analysis about the full extent of any environmental damage caused by the temporary rule changes. The Alberta government implemented these changes after lobbying from the oil and gas industry.

The year 2020 was the first time the regulator required that companies report data to the provincial information portal outlining how they survey their equipment for methane leaks, and which repairs they made.

“This year was also unique, as there were temporary requirement relaxations because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the regulator wrote in its report.

These changes led to “data gaps” in the regulator’s tracking of how much methane actually escaped from leaky equipment, the report said. As a result, the amount of methane leaking from oil and gas operations was “under-reported in 2020,” the regulator said.

The assessment contrasts with a May 2020 statement released by the office of then-Alberta environment minister Jason Nixon, which said the rule changes were meant to strike a balance between ensuring public safety and the safety of workers.

“In all cases, monitoring activities required to assure immediate public health protection of the environment, and emergency response and preparedness will continue,” Nixon’s office told Global News at the time.

Methane, the main component of natural gas, is a powerful pollutant that, like black carbon and refrigerants, is many times more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere over a short period.

Provincial officials later restored most of its rules for industry by the summer of 2020, however, Alberta lost information tracking methane pollution in the interim. Without this information, the government could not ensure oil and gas companies were meeting targets to reduce pollution that is contributing to the climate crisis.

Restrictions due to COVID-19 were also the reason the regulator experienced “significant delays” in its inspection regime for oil and gas sites, it said in the report.

The regulator’s statements provide a fresh example of how lobbying from the oil and gas industry is threatening Canada’s efforts to slash greenhouse gas pollution.

The provincial methane pollution regulations — adopted by Alberta in 2018 — were also weakened in response to lobbying by oil giant, Canadian Natural Resources Limited. As revealed in a recent investigation by The Narwhal, the company persuaded then-energy minister Marg McCuaig-Boyd in former premier Rachel Notley’s NDP government to intervene in a process led by the provincial regulator that was pushing for tougher and more enforceable regulations to target more of Alberta’s dirtiest facilities.

The regulator’s latest report on industry performance also reveals that it has found dozens of violations of the methane pollution rules by a range of companies.

Kenney’s office did not immediately respond to a request from The Narwhal for comment. Alberta Environment and Parks has also not responded to questions from The Narwhal about the provincial climate rules.

A tanker truck drives near the Hardisty Terminal outside of Hardisty, Alberta in April 2022.
The regulator suspended some requirements to monitor leaks from aging or failing equipment with proper technology, instead allowing less advanced equipment. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

Behind closed doors with industry

The 2020 rule changes were adopted following discussions behind closed doors with industry executives, without any public consultation, according to a report by Global News. A number of the industry requests were similar to those pursued by lobbyists prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The regulator later restored the rules but representatives from Treaty 8 First Nations of Alberta criticized the government for making decisions with industry in private and failing to consult First Nations, whose rights and ways of life would be affected by those policies.

The opposition Alberta NDP had also demanded that the government restore the rules, and later questioned whether some relief requested was actually related to public health measures.

The regulator insisted, at the time, that its rule changes would allow industry to be able to follow public health orders without stepping out of line with its requirements.

In one case, the regulator suspended requirements for companies to monitor methane leaks from aging or failing equipment. These kinds of leaks represented about an eighth of all emissions that oil and gas operators reported to the provincial online information portal in 2020, according to the report, or about 70.1 million cubic metres of methane gas.

This change meant the regulator did not enforce rules requiring companies to conduct detailed monitoring with proper technology that can detect both large and small leaks. Instead it allowed companies to monitor for leaks with less advanced equipment, a spokesperson for the regulator told The Narwhal in a written response to questions.

Alberta’s regulations make it clear that these types of screenings are “less comprehensive” than the technical surveys.

Another change loosened requirements related to compressors, which are used to ensure the movement of gas through pipes and which contain seals that can wear out and leak methane.

These changes were made as a result of the “extenuating circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the social distancing restrictions,” the spokesperson wrote in the email. The regulator said it allowed for the screening option because this procedure is typically done by company employees “who are already attending the sites.”

The regulator admitted the use of more advanced equipment to test for methane leaks “would have resulted in more concise readings” but argued the alternative “still allowed industry to identify and repair some leaks.”

International Energy Agency says leaked methane gas could power Europe

The International Energy Agency has said about four million tonnes of methane leaked from end-use equipment last year worldwide. This “wasteful leakage,” it concluded, is “all the more striking” given that, if companies captured all the methane leaking from their equipment, it would equal “all the gas used in Europe’s power sector.”

Alberta says it is “on track” to meet its methane reduction target of 45 per cent below 2012 levels by 2025. Most of that reduction occurred between 2014 and 2020, however, before the province’s methane rules came into effect, and the regulator has pointed to government grants and programs, like the province’s emissions trading regime, as reasons why methane levels are lower.

That means that with tougher rules and stricter enforcement, it might have been possible to exceed the target and stop even more methane from escaping into the atmosphere. The federal government, which has endorsed Alberta’s plan as “equivalent” to its own standards, has now embraced a steeper methane reduction target, but the province hasn’t said whether it supports a tougher approach.

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We’ve got big plans for 2024
Seeking out climate solutions, big and small. Investigating the influence of oil and gas lobbyists. Holding leaders accountable for protecting the natural world.

The Narwhal’s reporting team is busy unearthing important environmental stories you won’t read about anywhere else in Canada. And we’ll publish it all without corporate backers, ads or a paywall.

How? Because of the support of a tiny fraction of readers like you who make our independent, investigative journalism free for all to read.

Will you join more than 6,000 members helping us pull off critical reporting this year?

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