EDMONTON -- The Alberta Energy Regulator has suspended a wide array of environmental monitoring requirements for oilsands companies over public health concerns raised by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The decision, released earlier this week, means that Imperial Oil, Suncor, Syncrude and Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. don't have to perform much of the testing and monitoring originally required in their licences.

The move comes on top of an earlier order from Alberta Environment Minister Jason Nixon that suspended environmental reporting requirements for all industry.

The latest exemptions specifically relieve operators of having to monitor most ground and surface water, unless it enters the environment. Almost all wildlife and bird monitoring is suspended.

Air-quality programs, including one for the First Nations community of Fort McKay, have been reduced, along with many other conditions of the companies' licences.

The regulator says some programs are to resume by the end of September, but most have no restart date.

Regulator spokesman Shawn Roth said in an email that essential monitoring remains intact.

“Surveillance and monitoring by operators and the AER continues to ensure safe and responsible operations of all facilities,” he wrote.

“Companies must continue to collect the majority of monitoring information they did previously and provide it to the AER upon request.”

Companies must still monitor dams, said Roth. Bird deterrents for tailings ponds remain in place, although at least 50 birds died this week at an Imperial tailings site.

Roth said the suspensions are likely to remain in place as long as there are other COVID-related orders under the Public Health Act, although some of the exemptions have an end date of Sept. 30.

Earlier this week, the federal government allowed industry to delay reporting of greenhouse gas emissions to July 31 from June 1.

Allan Adam, chief of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in the oilsands region, said the AER's decision came without consultation.

“Environmental monitoring and protection are critical elements of oilsands operations that should never be considered optional,” he said in a release.

“We are calling on the Alberta Energy Regulator to immediately review this decision and identify means by which monitoring can continue, while protecting workers and the environment.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 6, 2020