Groups across Alberta and the Northwest Territories warn the federal government of impacts of monitoring suspensions on Wood Buffalo National Park
June 9, 2020
Edmonton – The following letter was submitted on behalf of a joint group including: Fort Chipewyan Métis Association, Northwest Territory Métis Nation, Smith’s Landing First Nation, the Hamlet of Fort Resolution, Keepers of the Athabasca Watershed Society, Alberta Wilderness Association, CPAWS Northern Alberta, CPAWS Northwest Territories, Ecology North, Alternatives North, and Council of Canadians – Edmonton and Northwest Territories Chapters. The letter to the federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change outlines the substantial risks to downstream communities and ecosystems due to the Alberta Energy Regulator’s decision to suspend environmental monitoring for oil & gas projects. The health of Wood Buffalo National Park and the success of its federal Action Plan is undermined by these suspensions. Wood Buffalo National Park is Canada’s largest national park, and continued ecological degradation would be grounds to list as a World Heritage Site “in Danger”.
June 9, 2020
Hon. Jonathan Wilkinson
Minister of Environment and Climate Change
House of Commons
Sent via email to: [email protected]
Re: Wood Buffalo National Park at risk because of suspensions of environmental monitoring of oil and gas projects in Alberta
Dear Minister Wilkinson,
We are writing in regards to the series of unilateral decisions from the Alberta Energy Regulator to suspend important environmental monitoring activities for the oil and gas sector in Alberta. The suspensions will have negative impacts on downstream ecosystems and communities, threatening the success of Wood Buffalo National Park’s Action Plan and Parks Canada’s commitments under UNESCO to maintain the Park’s ecological health. The federal government should make it clear that environmental monitoring is an essential activity for a safe and responsible energy sector by urging the Government of Alberta to immediately reinstate the monitoring requirements.
The AER suspended environmental monitoring requirements in a cascading series of decisions on April 29 (20200429A, 20200429B, 20200429C, 20200429D), May 1 (20200501A, 20200501B, 20200501C), May 5 (20200505A), and May 20, 2020, (20200520A, 20200520B) under the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, Water Act, and Public Lands Act.
The Government of Alberta did not consider the impacts the environmental monitoring suspensions will have on Wood Buffalo National Park or its World Heritage Site status, Alberta’s role in the Action Plan, or the cross-jurisdictional implications of how these suspensions will affect those in the Northwest Territories. The park, which lies just downstream of the oil sands, has experienced substantial ecological degradation that has been repeatedly linked to upstream industrial influences, and may be consequently listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site “in Danger”, the first step towards losing its internationally-renowned status.
The suspensions will affect many of the Park’s Outstanding Universal Values, including the health of the Peace-Athabasca Delta and use of the Park by a great concentration of migratory birds (Criterion vii), and its support of a breeding population of Whooping Cranes (Criterion x). The monitoring is imperative to detect early-on impacts that accumulate downstream and assess mitigation approaches, including the testing of surface waters and ground waters, soil monitoring, the lab testing of waters released to the environment, monitoring of wildlife, such as woodland caribou, and monitoring of tailings that illuminates the—often poor—performance of bird deterrents.
The Action Plan was requested by UNESCO to detail how Canada intends to restore the Park’s ecological integrity. The World Heritage Committee stated at the meeting following the release of the Action Plan that Canada needed to meaningfully implement the Action Plan and that the continued deterioration of the Site could constitute grounds for being listed as a World Heritage Site in Danger. The Action Plan references the provincial regulatory requirements under the Water Act, the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, and the Oil Sands Conservation Act, suggesting they suitably address environmental risks of operations in the oil sands. Thus, part of the success of the Action Plan depends on Alberta’s role in the Plan regarding provincial regulations to protect the Park from upstream industrial impacts. And, therefore, the AER’s decision to suspend monitoring activities undermines progress on the federal Action Plan and risks its perceived effectiveness by UNESCO.
Many of the regulatory requirements that have been put on pause indefinitely were developed as project approval conditions to directly address environmental risks identified by downstream Indigenous communities. Yet, the suspensions were carried out without consultation with these affected communities, again undermining the Action Plan that is centered around strengthening relationships and collaboration with Indigenous communities. In fact, three First Nations are formally appealing the decision by the regulator for failing to consult on this decision that would have significant impacts on their communities and the environment.
The suspensions were in response to public health concerns for the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, and lack timelines for reinstatement for all but one of the activities suspended. The decision states that operators would not be able to meet the selected environmental monitoring requirements while complying with COVID-19 Orders and Guidelines. In contrast, active ongoing operations at oil and gas facilities meet the COVID-19 guidelines, and businesses across the Alberta economy continue to re-open, showing it is reasonable to expect protocols to adapt to ensure monitoring activities can safely continue, as well.
With the suspensions affecting downstream ecosystems and communities in Alberta and the Northwest Territories, Wood Buffalo National Park and its World Heritage status, the federal government has a responsibility to pursue reinstatement of the environmental monitoring suspensions. We request the Minister:
- Urge the Government of Alberta to reinstate all of the environmental monitoring activities for oil and gas projects immediately, including oil sands mining and in situ projects, with enhanced protocols to address safety issues related to COVID-19. As it appears the reliance on common third-party contractors for monitoring and sample collection are at the center of operators’ concerns, we request including the identification of additional third-party monitoring and sampling contractors and more labs to support testing, or use of federal facilities for this support;
- Engage with local Indigenous communities who are concerned with the lack of environmental monitoring and reporting, and explore increasing support for specific Indigenous Guardians program deliverables to assist in identifying and filling data gaps;
- Investigate and report on any gaps these suspensions may have created for the purpose of Canada’s UNESCO commitments;
- Address the gaps the suspensions may have on the success of Wood Buffalo National Park’s Action Plan and Alberta’s commitment to their jurisdictional role in the Plan; and,
- Include the full reinstatement of the environmental monitoring as a condition of any COVID-19 stimulus package to oil and gas.
Cameron MacDonald, President, Fort Chipewyan Métis Association
Garry Bailey, President, Northwest Territory Métis Nation
Gerry Cheezie, Chief, Smith’s Landing First Nation
Patrick Simon, Mayor, Hamlet of Fort Resolution
Cleo Reece & Paul Belanger, Co-chairs, Keepers of the Athabasca Watershed Society
Carolyn Campbell, Conservation Specialist, Alberta Wilderness Association
Gillian Chow-Fraser, Boreal Program Manager, CPAWS Northern Alberta
Zoe Guile, Conservation Coordinator, CPAWS Northwest Territories
Craig Scott, Executive Director, Ecology North
France Benoit, Member, Alternatives North
Lois Little, Past Chair, Council of Canadians – Northwest Territories Chapter
Rod Olstad and Robert Wilde, Co-Chairs, and Richard Merry, Executive Member, Council of Canadians – Edmonton Chapter
Ron Hallman, President & Chief Executive Officer, Parks Canada ([email protected])
Hon. Steven Guibeault, Minister of Canadian Heritage ([email protected])
Hon. Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations ([email protected])
Cam Zimmer, Parks Canada, Superintendent of Wood Buffalo National Park ([email protected])
Mizuki Murai, World Heritage Monitoring Officer, IUCN
For more information on the suspensions:
- See our formal letter to Ministers Nixon and Savage about the suspensions here
- See CPAWS NAB official response here
- Read CPAWS NAB Boreal Program Manager op-ed on the decision to suspend monitoring here: “Opinion: Suspending environmental checks threatens migratory birds”
Wood Buffalo is important due to its immense ecological value, and the Indigenous cultural and spiritual connections to the area, leading to its designation as a World Heritage Site in 1983. It is a part of the world’s largest protected intact boreal forest. The Park helps sustain herds of Threatened wood bison and endangered whooping crane. Indigenous communities depend upon the lands and the water that flows through it to maintain their ways of life. Learn more about the Park here.
The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society
The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) is Canada’s only nationwide charity dedicated solely to the protection of our public land and water and ensuring our parks are managed to protect the biodiversity within them. Over the last 50+ years, CPAWS has played a lead role in protecting over half a million square kilometres – an area bigger than the entire Yukon Territory. Our vision is to protect at least half of our public land and water so that future generations can experience Canada’s irreplaceable wilderness.
CPAWS has chapters in almost every province and territory across Canada, and two chapters here in Alberta – a Southern Alberta chapter located in Calgary and a Northern Alberta chapter located in Edmonton. As a collaborative organization, CPAWS works closely with government of all levels, industry representatives, and communities to manage our impact on a shared landscape. We also advocate for the creation of parks and protected areas for the benefit of both current and future generations of Canadians.