Independent journalism saved the Greenbelt from development
After 11 months of dogged reporting from The Narwhal and beyond, Doug Ford has succumbed...
Oil and gas producers were in dire straits in the spring of 2020.
In Alberta, oil and gas lobbyists sprung into action, warning government officials the industry could barely cover operating costs. Companies needed financing and government help to keep people employed, they argued, and to provide shelter from the twin crises of COVID-19 and an oil market crash.
But correspondence and meeting records obtained by The Narwhal have revealed the lobbying went far beyond surviving the pandemic and included what one former government official described as a long-standing oilpatch industry “wish list.”
The records, including dozens of pages the Alberta government initially refused to release, in violation of a provincial information law, reveal details of the long list of changes proposed by the lobby group, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
An analysis by The Narwhal has revealed four key areas the oil lobbyists discussed — wetlands, oilsands monitoring, tailings ponds and public involvement — could also be found in earlier lobbying efforts that took place far before the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Eric Denhoff, who acted as a deputy minister of Alberta’s Environment Ministry under the previous NDP government, reviewed the lobbyists’ list upon The Narwhal’s request.
“When you look at the enormous volume of requests, what you really have there is a 20-year wish list of requests that they’ve been trying on the [Progressive] Conservatives, then the NDP and then the UCP governments over the last couple of decades,” Denhoff said.
“Many of these go back a long way, and they’ve been pushed back on — both by conservative and NDP governments — because they were inappropriate to try and let industry wriggle out of basic, core responsibilities.”
Jan Gorski, director of the Pembina Institute’s oil and gas program, called the scale and scope of the requests “alarming.”
Gorski said it appeared that during the pandemic, oil lobbyists “sought the removal of a critical number of environmental protections which were unjustified and would have had long-term negative consequences to Albertans and our environment.”
Alberta officials discussed the changes behind closed doors, through a committee the oil and gas lobby group dubbed the “COVID-19 Market Crisis Joint Working Group,” the documents obtained by The Narwhal show. The lobby group initiated the committee on March 18, 2020, one day before Alberta saw its first death from COVID-19, under an agreement with then-premier Jason Kenney and then-energy minister Sonya Savage, herself a former Enbridge lobbyist.
Then-president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Tim McMillan, a former Saskatchewan energy minister, called the first meeting to order two weeks later, and Savage and McMillan ran through the group’s “objectives.” Some senior staff in the minister and premier’s offices were also listed as “required attendees.”
The lobby group presented a list of 132 separate items to officials during the first meetings of the committee — asking to suspend, defer or scale back industry obligations on everything from Indigenous consultation to greenhouse gas reporting and environmental or wildlife monitoring programs. In their internal emails, some government officials began referring to the lobbyist list by a nickname, using the lobby group’s acronym: “CAPP 132.”
The oil and gas lobbyists outlined their requests to officials, including their desire to postpone the development of any policy or regulation that would “increase costs” for industry and instead “focus on industry priority areas to mitigate potential for increased burden for industry.”
They also were interested in “leveraging” some of their previous lobbying efforts, they said, and in suspending what the lobbyists called “near-term, low-risk regulatory obligations,” like the provincial policy for protecting wetlands, as well as suspending requirements under the province’s emissions reduction and methane restrictions programs.
Although there is nothing unusual about lobbyists for Alberta’s largest industry pressing government officials about policy decisions or asking government to consult companies about matters that could directly affect them, the documents provide a glimpse into how oil and gas companies had an influential — and unparalleled — seat at the table.
Nearly 50 public servants, political staff and regulators were involved with planning or running the committee or its various sub-committees — which also discussed additional policy changes. The structure of the main committee, including its name, is similar to a federal undertaking with the same lobby group reported on by The Breach.
The committee at the federal level was led by Natural Resources Canada, The Breach reported, and chaired by then-minister Seamus O’Regan, who is now labour minister. It had a similar objective of reducing “regulatory burden,” and included a short list of oil and gas company representatives.
In addition to lobbyists and government officials, the Alberta committee also involved representatives from five oil and gas companies: Tourmaline Oil, NuVista Energy, Canadian Natural Resources Limited, Imperial Oil and Syncrude. None of these companies responded to The Narwhal’s requests for comment.
Alberta Energy’s top bureaucrat, Grant Sprague, moderated the committee meetings. The Narwhal reached out to Sprague for an interview but did not receive a response from him or Alberta Energy. Alberta’s Environment Ministry, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, the office of former premier Kenney (contacted by The Narwhal before Smith was sworn in) and the office of Savage, who is now environment minister, all did not respond to requests for comment.
The committee’s “core operational team,” according to the documents, was listed as three vice presidents from the oil and gas lobby group, as well as an “industry designate” from one of the other oil and gas companies. It also included a senior official in Savage’s office and one other “government designate.”
Denhoff, the former deputy minister, had reservations not just about the list of requests, but the structure of the committee.
“The entire core operations committee is four lobbyists and a political chief of staff,” he said. “It’s just unbelievable.”
In one internal presentation to provincial officials from April 2020, the lobby group noted how the provincial government had estimated the industry was running out of cash and needed between $25 billion to $30 billion to continue operating, more than the entire budget of the Ministry of Health in Alberta at the time (which was just under $21 billion in 2020).
It was in these circumstances that lobbyists circulated their list of 132 requests. Alberta granted approximately half of the requests by June 2020, the documents show, while dozens of others were either partially approved or remained under discussion. Some of those decisions led to the temporary rollback of environmental oversight in the province.
Those rollbacks included ministerial orders modifying legislation overseeing environmental protections and oil and gas activity and numerous amendments to approvals governing the monitoring of the oilsands.
In response to written questions from The Narwhal, Jay Averill, a spokesperson for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, sent a brief statement. “Through the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting global economic shutdown, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, on behalf of the oil and natural gas industry, worked directly with provincial and federal governments to ensure reliability of energy production as an essential service,” he said.
“By working in concert with policymakers across the country we helped to create a safer environment for the people working in the industry while they continued to provide the energy Canadians and our trading partners rely on to survive.”
One of the key focus areas for lobbyists pressuring provincial officials at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic was wetland policy as it relates to industry.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers has long pushed back against rules it views as too stringent, or too expensive, when it comes to protecting wetlands, starting with Alberta’s wetland policy introduced in 2013. Such a policy provides “strategic direction” for decisions impacting wetlands in the province, including tools and guidelines for development.
Wetlands cover about half of the oilsands region, according to the Alberta government, and include bogs, marshes and peatlands, which develop over hundreds of years and are deeply important to First Nations communities.
When Alberta’s wetland policy was introduced in 2013, the association pushed back against a proposed “no-net-loss” clause in the policy that would have forced the industry to replace each hectare of wetland it damaged. The group complained such a policy would cost companies “billions of dollars.” The government backtracked, ultimately announcing a policy that aimed only to “minimize the loss” of wetlands, while emphasizing it would still “allow for continued growth and economic development.”
Nevertheless, the industry continued its resistance into 2019, when it pressured the government over Alberta’s “wetland policy implementation approach,” as part of 52 “energy issues” identified in the documents as being oil and gas lobby group priorities.
By the time the pandemic struck, the industry was again pointing to the cost of minimizing damage to wetlands, saying “wetland policy implementation incurs significant costs for operators,” and asking for temporary elimination of wetland-related requirements.
Documents show the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers wanted the Alberta Energy Regulator to “defer any required three-year comprehensive reporting requirements for wetlands by one year,” and to “waive the requirement to collect wetland monitoring samples for the duration of, and three months following, [COVID-19] distancing requirements.”
The association also asked the regulator to waive all requirements for field monitoring and reporting under the province’s Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act for all of 2020 — programs that “may include” those related to wetlands, the lobbyists said — as well as surface water, fisheries, soil, wildlife and reclamation.
The lobbyists said monitoring programs relied on third-party contractors, who were difficult to bring into work sites at the time because operations were limiting staff to essential workers only, and COVID-19 travel restrictions were also in place.
They also downplayed the risks of temporarily eliminating monitoring.
“For wetland monitoring, suspending sampling for a season or a period of time is unlikely to result in a potential impact being missed,” they said in their request. “Delay will not impact wetlands, only reporting,” they said in another.
The province ended up granting all three of those requests.
In response to questions, the provincial energy regulator told The Narwhal by email “only some monitoring and reporting requirements” were temporarily suspended through ministerial orders — those “considered to have a low risk of potential short- and long-term impacts.”
All requirements for monitoring, and activities incidental to monitoring, that had been suspended were reinstated in the summer of 2020, a spokesperson said.
The Narwhal also asked the regulator what happened to approved environmental suspensions with vague end dates, such as “three months post-COVID-19” or other similar references to the end of the pandemic.
The regulator said oil and gas operators were given 30 days following the regulator’s amendments to various decisions issued June 22, 2020, “to comply with all existing approval requirements as of July 15.”
Like the wetland policy, the joint Oilsands Monitoring Program with the federal government was started about a decade ago, and it received pushback in Alberta almost from the start. Yet the program, which oversees environmental monitoring of the oilsands region except for leases controlled by companies, has released valuable information showing rising mercury levels downstream from oilsands plants.
According to the program’s most recent annual report, published in 2019, its research had become the basis for hundreds of peer-reviewed papers and other reports and presentations on issues including air quality, mercury, carbon pollution and the impacts of wildfires.
The oil and gas industry, which pays for the program, has been lobbying about it since at least 2019. Government records show that at that point the province was indicating a “limited” desire to engage on the topic.
But after the pandemic began, the lobbyists argued to Alberta public servants that oilsands companies shouldn’t have to pay for the monitoring program that year, in part because various environmental monitoring activities would be suspended due to COVID-19 restrictions and the program’s expenses would shrink.
They also argued the program had “consistently underspent” its annual budget “over the past several years,” and so a “significant surplus has accumulated.” These surplus funds, it said, should be used to pay for the program for 2020-21, instead of oilsands companies. The lobbyists also asked for the program’s focus that year to be on desk work like program design, data analysis and report writing.
The government marked this request as “reposition,” meaning they did not immediately grant it, but continued discussing it.
Denhoff, the former deputy climate minister, said the monitoring program became a “battle.” Every year, he said, industry would try to reduce the amount of money the program spent — ensuring there would be a surplus.
In their request, the lobbyists did not specify how much of a surplus had accumulated. In 2020, The Canadian Press reported the program’s budget in 2019-20 was $58 million, of which approximately 90 per cent was spent.
Joe Vipond, a physician who is past president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and co-founder of the Calgary Climate Hub, said the documents show how weakened oilsands monitoring was another point against the provincial and federal governments’ claim the initiative is a “world-class monitoring system.”
“It’s no surprise that as soon as there’s trouble in the industry, the first thing they want to do is make that monitoring even weaker,” he said.
“Everything that has happened since the UCP has come into power has been about supporting the industry. And so it’s zero surprise to me that industry has this kind of unfettered access, whereas it’s very difficult for other citizens, including environmental organizations, to have influence over this government.”
In addition to the Oilsands Monitoring Program, lobbyists were also fighting obligations to monitor the industry’s own waste.
The gigantic reservoirs of toxic byproducts created by oilsands operations, known as tailings ponds, have ballooned in size by almost 800 per cent over the past half-century and are now collectively bigger than the city of Vancouver.
The oil and gas industry has been pushing to release treated water from these tailings ponds into the Athabasca River, a move critics say could risk damaging the important waterway. Federal regulations on the issue are expected in 2025.
Related to tailings ponds are what the industry calls “pit lakes,” which are reclaimed oilsands areas filled with a mix of mine water, fresh water and tailings.
Tailings ponds in Alberta have been found to be leaking and there remains no comprehensive plan to clean them up, nor any clear indication of how this would be paid for. According to the regulator, companies have set aside $1.5 billion for security as of June 2022 to cover what the regulator has said is nearly $34 billion in liabilities related to the clean up of mining sites, including the oilsands. In 2018, a senior official at the Alberta Energy Regulator said in an internal presentation the true figure could be much higher.
The industry was lobbying on policies relating to pit lakes and tailings in 2019, according to the documents. Once the pandemic began, the oil and gas lobby group asked again for a reprieve on collecting samples.
“There is only one contractor that can do this work,” the lobbyists told the government, “and operators already struggle to get this done as an industry because of capacity.”
They said that instead of sampling, the data could be “estimated” instead based on the volumes of material being treated.
Again, the oil lobbyists played down the danger of stopping monitoring.
“[Tailings] pond measurement in itself does not impact safety nor increase environmental risk,” they wrote in the 132 requests. “While having annual pond investigations done does provide useful data, given the current environment it makes sense to provide a one-year-only waiver from the requirement to collect new data.”
The government granted this request.
Government documents show that as early as May 2020, the crisis committee was “evaluating” changes to the tailings policy.
Records show the oil lobbyists also successfully pressured the government to “waive the requirement for water quality monitoring for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis,” which included pit lakes, as well as groundwater, surface water and other water quality analysis.
Industry also received approval to suspend requirements to “advance research programs and demonstration activities for 2020” including those for pit lakes.
The oil and gas lobby group has long been interested in shrinking the process for public consultations on energy projects, one of the few ways Albertans can have their voices heard on industry activities.
In 2019, The Narwhal reported on government documents showing how oil lobbyists wanted to “expedite” public consultations involving Albertans and landowners that may be directly and adversely affected by new oil and gas developments like wells or pipelines.
Normally, these individuals can file a “statement of concern” about the development, typically within a 30-day period, but the oil and gas industry has referred to this process as an “Achilles heel” thwarting approvals of energy projects. It has lobbied to either shrink or cut this process in some instances, which could limit the ability of Albertans to object to oil and gas activities that affect them, or limit which projects were required to seek public input.
The documents obtained by The Narwhal confirm the lobby group continued to pressure the government on the statement of concern process in 2019.
The issue also became a significant lobbying point during the COVID-19 crisis response committee meetings.
“Statement of concern process opportunities” appears as a discussion topic five times during meetings between August and October 2020, the documents show.
The oil and gas lobby group initially informed the Alberta government at the start of the crisis response committee that they were interested in “leveraging previous [Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers] submissions,” one of which was managing statements of concern, which it called a “top priority.”
Consultation with Indigenous communities is required as part of the approval process for new oil and gas projects.
However, there were no First Nations representatives listed on any of the committees discussing the rule changes with provincial and industry officials — including proposed changes to project reviews through the regulator.
The government also agreed to another request the lobbyists made regarding the Aboriginal Consultation Office, a government agency that coordinates input from First Nations and Métis communities potentially impacted by oil and gas projects: to ensure Indigenous consultations about oil and gas projects wouldn’t be “paused or delayed due to an inability to meet in person.”
The government granted this request in early April 2020. In mid-April that year, the Aboriginal Consultation Office started sending out messages to about 30 First Nations telling them consultations would resume so oil and gas projects could move forward, according to Global News.
No representative from Alberta Indigenous Relations was listed as attending the crisis committee. The ministry did not respond to questions from The Narwhal.
“The history between the Alberta government and Indigenous nations is one already marked with strife and mistrust due to past and ongoing violations of the Alberta government with Indigenous communities,” said Melina Laboucan-Massimo, co-founder and campaigns director at Indigenous Climate Action and founder of Sacred Earth Solar.
“Alberta publicly pretending to attempt reconciliation with Indigenous nations while secretly meeting with industry is a major step backwards from any meaningful reconciliatory action by once again disrespecting the inherent and treaty rights of Indigenous peoples,” Laboucan-Massimo, who is Lubicon Cree from northern Alberta, said.
Government officials and industry lobbyists did not make public the nature of their conversations at the crisis committee. The government only released some of the details in September after it was compelled to do so through freedom of information legislation.
Alberta’s freedom of information legislation requires government agencies to grant access to records within 30 days upon request, unless they have a valid reason to refuse or delay. In this case, the ministry’s failure to meet deadlines prompted a rebuke from the watchdog, the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta, who confirmed earlier this year that Alberta Energy was in breach of the law for refusing access to records. Alberta Energy eventually released those records to The Narwhal in September, more than a year past the deadline.
Alberta Energy has also missed another deadline in response to a separate request for records from meetings of government officials and lobbyists on the committee after the fall of 2020. The ministry told The Narwhal its freedom of information office was “short-staffed.”
Vanessa Sung, interim executive director for Evidence for Democracy, an Ottawa-based nonprofit that promotes evidence in government decision-making, said this raises concerns about transparency.
“A healthy democracy is one where citizens are informed and able to engage in the process of policy development or, at minimum, understand the rationale behind policy decisions. This is how we hold policymakers accountable for their decisions and it requires transparency at all levels of government,” Sung said.
“As a country we’re in need of improvement around policy transparency, and this committee is a very troubling example of that,” she said.
“In a democracy, it’s not enough that governments say they are making decisions that benefit their citizens. They need to show their work.”
Vipond, the physician, said the government documents appeared to show “unilateral conversations” between oil and gas lobbyists, public servants and regulators, without input from other groups.
Vipond pointed to the rise of videoconferencing at the onset of the pandemic as yet another way the government could have engaged other Albertans. “There’s no reason why other stakeholders couldn’t have been involved,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Alberta Energy Regulator said it was “committed to working with all its stakeholders and this engagement happens at all levels of the organization.”
“Our leadership is committed to developing these relationships and meets with different groups and individuals over the course of a year on a variety of topics consistent with anyone in a leadership role,” the spokesperson said.
“Additionally, our leadership continues to connect with a variety of stakeholder groups, including industry, environmental non-government organizations, municipal associations and Indigenous communities to further build these relationships.”
The spokesperson also said the crisis committee was formed to “develop a timely response to ministerial orders related to COVID-19 and protect the safety of workers in the energy industry and Alberta communities.”
Vipond is concerned more Albertans weren’t involved.
“Theoretically, governments work for all people within that jurisdiction. So where’s the Indigenous consultation? Where’s the citizens, where’s the environmental organizations, where’s the counters to one perspective?” Vipond asked.
“If you’re only getting one perspective, you’re probably only making one decision.”
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After 11 months of dogged reporting from The Narwhal and beyond, Doug Ford has succumbed...
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