No independent agency, but increased monitoring in oilsands

EDMONTON — A long-awaited program from the federal and Alberta governments on how to gauge the environmental effects of the oilsands — and answer the industry’s international critics — will watch for more contaminants, in more places, more often.

EDMONTON — A long-awaited program from the federal and Alberta governments on how to gauge the environmental effects of the oilsands — and answer the industry’s international critics — will watch for more contaminants, in more places, more often.

“We will begin to work immediately,” federal Environment Minister Peter Kent said Friday after a technical briefing in Edmonton. “It is critical that we get the development of the oilsands right.”

The monitoring will be run — at least at first — by bureaucrats instead of the independent agency that had been recommended by scientists advising the governments.

But Alberta Environment Minister Diana McQueen said that such a commission is soon to follow.

“We look forward in the province toward moving toward the independent commission,” she said. “To me, what was most important was that we get this plan out quickly.

“I strongly believe that we (should) have a provincial independent commission.”

Increased monitoring, by a combination of provincial, federal, industry and private researchers, is to begin this spring.

There are expected to be 172 monitoring sites in the oilsands region by the end of a three-year phase-in period — up from the current 110. More chemicals, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and naphthenic acids, are to be measured.

The geographic reach of the plan is significantly extended and will eventually stretch to include monitoring sites in Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories. Readings at those sites will be taken monthly, instead of yearly.

In addition to looking for contaminants, monitors will also examine biodiversity, animal toxicity, plant health and habitat disruption. Officials said no human toxicity tests are planned, but added Health Canada is aware of the monitoring and will be notified about possible problems.

The plan will face peer review after three years and then every five years after that.

The proposal was praised by scientists who advised the government on its design.

“It’s a huge step forward,” said Andrew Miall, a University of Toronto geologist who helped write one of the reports that called for monitoring reform. “The plan looks like a good one.”

John Smol of Queen’s University agreed.

“There’s some very good things in this plan, some very good science,” he said.

David Schindler, the University of Alberta ecologist whose research did as much as anything to lead to the new plan, said he was reassured by McQueen’s promise in a meeting Friday morning that the monitoring will eventually come under the control of an independent body.

“I feel pretty optimistic after the session this morning with the two ministers and their promise,” he said. “I can’t believe they would sit in a panel of senior academics and promise something and walk away from it, so I’m hopeful.”

Schindler added that the governments will have to work hard to ensure aboriginal groups are included at the highest levels of the monitoring agency.

No aboriginals were present at Friday’s announcement. Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, downstream from the oilsands development, said Friday morning he wasn’t even aware it was taking place.

The program is expected to cost about $50 million per year. Kent said industry leaders have told him energy companies are willing to write the cheque if they’re satisfied the system is efficient and effective.

“Contracts haven’t been written,” Kent said. “But … there is acknowledgment there will have to be a series of agreements.”

Greg Stringham of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers said industry leaders support the system, but first want to take a close look at its details.

“The industry knows this is an important part of going forward,” he said. “We haven’t seen all the details of that funding, but I believe as we look at those details, we’ll be able to evaluate that it’s going to be effective and efficient.”

Industry is already paying about $20 million.

Provincial New Democrat environment critic Rachel Notley said a monitoring plan without independent oversight won’t earn the public’s trust. She said Friday’s announcement was full of holes and made before the provincial election this spring.

“What we needed to do was change the governance,” she said.

“None of that’s happened. We have no guarantees about when it will happen in the future, we have no details, we have no timelines, we have no extra money.

“It’s a premature, pre-election announcement.”

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