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Canadian oil lobby’s demands to skip environmental monitoring put public health at risk, experts warn

CAPP asked the federal government to suspend pollution monitoring and methane leak detection — requests that ‘have little to do with the COVID crisis,’ according to critics

As communities across the country braced for the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada’s oil and gas lobby was pushing the federal government to suspend pollution monitoring requirements and delay forthcoming measures to fight climate change in an effort to prop up the flagging industry.

In a 13-page letter to cabinet ministers late last month, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) asked the government to “adopt a do no harm principle with respect to regulations and the costs they impose on industry.”

But some observers say the proposed measures could in fact cause serious harm to Indigenous communities, the environment and public health.

“I was gobsmacked,” said Dale Marshall, the national climate program manager with Environmental Defence, which posted a leaked copy of the letter online last week. It has since been posted on CAPP’s website

While Marshall said some of the requests, such as a recommendation to defer greenhouse gas emissions reporting by a few months, are more reasonable given the challenges posed by the pandemic, he said others are “quite frankly, ludicrous.”

Among more than 30 recommendations, CAPP asked the federal government to suspend methane leak detection surveys for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis, defer monitoring required under the Fisheries Act for 2020 and suspend stack testing until non-essential workers return to work sites. 

The association also requested the federal government defer legislation on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), hold off on changes to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, defer increases to the carbon tax until the recovery is underway, postpone additional climate measures, defer implementation of the clean fuel standard for three years, and exclude offshore exploration drilling and in-situ oil sands projects from federal environmental assessments.

A number of these requests “have little to do with the COVID crisis, aren’t imminent and are really offensive,” said Marshall.

Some could pose a health risk. 

“When they ask for a suspension of monitoring pollution that’s coming from smokestacks or a suspension of leak detection for methane, those are public health issues,” he said.

In a statement, CAPP said oil and gas companies have postponed non-essential work to limit the number of people at work sites and ensure social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and protect their workers.

With fewer people on-site, it has been a challenge to meet all of the existing regulatory requirements in order to be compliant,” the association said. “Implementing temporary changes for certain low-risk regulatory requirements allows companies to focus on critical areas of operations and continue to ensure effective protection of the environment and our neighbours.”

CAPP added that it’s asking the government to “suspend, delay or reconsider” regulations or policies that could increase costs to industry.

For the oil industry, which has struggled under depressed prices for the last few years, 2020 brought another major hit. Oil prices plunged to record lows, at one point dropping below $0, driven by a decline in demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a price war that led to a glut in supply.

“Increasing the costs of operating will inflict further damage to our economy as we struggle to weather this crisis,” CAPP’s statement said. “Support for the industry now can position us to be a part of the foundation of recovery and the long-term rebuild of Canada’s social and economic structure.”

Why we’re seeing negative oil prices in Alberta and across North America

Observers expressed major concerns, however, that the industry association’s approach to economic recovery runs contrary to Canada’s commitments on climate change and Indigenous rights. 

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia, said the organization’s letter was “very disturbing.”

In particular, CAPP’s recommendation that the federal government delay legislation on UNDRIP is both “unwise” and “very aggressive,” she said.

CAPP said there needs to be a full understanding of how UNDRIP fits with Canada’s economic recovery “to ensure alignment with the do no harm principle” and asked the federal government to hold off on legislation until “meaningful consultation” is possible.

But Turpel-Lafond said “it’s not going to be possible to rebuild the economy if it means that you do not respect that Indigenous people on their territory have significant rights that need to be appropriately respected.” 

“We need to make significant progress on supporting First Nations governments, addressing land issues, making some fundamental shifts in Canadian society to make it a more fair and just society, and to say that that’s a project that we can’t do because of a pandemic is really a concern.”

Dayna Scott, an environmental law professor at York University, noted the irony in CAPP urging the federal government “to adopt this do no harm principle.”

“Certainly, I think Indigenous people experience harm when projects are approved over their objections and without their consent,” she said.

The industry association is using the COVID-19 crisis as cover to push forward longstanding demands, Scott added.

“The most blatant example is they took a shot at getting the offshore exploration drilling and the in-situ oilsands (projects) taken out of the environmental assessment regime and they don’t even offer a COVID-related rational,” she said. 

CAPP argues in-situ projects, which involve injecting steam through horizontal wells to pump oil to the surface, are already subject to provincial legislation and makes the case that offshore exploratory drilling is “routine” and the risks and mitigations are well known.

“I don’t think people want to see oil companies using the excuse of the pandemic to be able to have projects approved without public input,” Scott said.

“If anything, I think people have come to see this period of shut down as an opportunity for us to pause and think carefully about what kinds of activities we want to continue once it’s finished,” she said.

People don’t want to see a return to “a ramped-up version of an oil-based economy” coming out of the COVID-19 crisis, Scott added.

On the same day the federal government announced $1.7 billion to help clean up oil and gas wells and create thousands of jobs, Global News asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about CAPP’s letter.

In response, he said “just because we are in one crisis right now doesn’t mean we can forget about the other crisis, the climate crisis that we are also facing as a world, as a country.”

The federal government remains committed to exceeding its 2030 emissions targets and reaching net zero by 2050, added Moira Kelly, a spokesperson for Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, in a statement to The Narwhal. 

11 things you need to know as Trudeau announces $1.7 billion to clean up ‘festering’ orphan and inactive wells

While Scott said Trudeau’s comments offer some comfort that the government won’t compromise on its high-profile commitments, such as the carbon tax, she worries about concessions on some of the more complex, lower-profile issues CAPP raised.

It’s a concern Marshall shares. “We’re going to have to keep an eye on a lot of these,” he said.

As it stands, Canada is projected to miss its 2030 target by 77 million tonnes — roughly the emissions produced by 16.6 million cars in a year ­— without new measures to reduce greenhouse gases. 

“The (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has made it crystal clear major GHG reductions are needed before this decade concludes or the world will find it exceedingly difficult, if not impossible to keep warming to 1.5 C,” said Jeffrey Brook, the scientific director of the Canadian Urban Environmental Health Research Consortium, in an email to The Narwhal.

He noted Canadians are already experiencing the consequences of climate change at the current level of warming. 

“It seems a shame that CAPP would thus try to gain three years of time in meeting critical clean fuel objectives and also weigh in on national carbon pricing plans,” said Brook, who is the lead author of a paper published last year that found some oilsands air emissions are underestimated. 

This is three years we don’t have.”

‘Nowhere else to turn’: First Nations inundated by oilsands projects face impossible choices

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Ainslie Cruickshank is a Vancouver-based journalist focused on stories about the environment. She has written for the the Toronto Star,…

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