Minister agrees oilsands monitoring must improve

EDMONTON — Alberta’s environment minister agrees with a panel of Canada’s top scientists that the province must improve the way it approves and monitors the oilsands.

EDMONTON — Alberta’s environment minister agrees with a panel of Canada’s top scientists that the province must improve the way it approves and monitors the oilsands.

“The monitoring aspect of our regulatory process has been called into question,” Rob Renner said Wednesday following the release of a study by the Royal Society of Canada. “We have to have a monitoring system that is not only credible, but seen to be credible.”

The report suggests that while the oilsands don’t deserve all the bad press they’ve been getting, the governments that regulate them do.

It concludes that the massive and rapidly expanding industry has outstripped Alberta’s capacity to regulate it. It says the province’s approval system doesn’t meet international standards and suggests that development projects in the Third World are more closely examined for health and social impacts.

It also says the province doesn’t get adequate financial guarantees from energy companies to ensure that the eventual cleanup costs of oilsands mines don’t fall to the taxpayer.

The federal government doesn’t escape criticism. The report says Ottawa has walked away from its responsibilities for aboriginal people and interprovincial air and water.

Renner acknowledged that changes are needed and coming, and predicted health and social issues will be more important in future approvals.

“There’s more work that can and will be done,” he said. “Of late, there has been more attention on some of the social and economic issues, as well as health issues, and I’m confident we will be able to move that agenda forward.

“We perhaps have a need to ensure that there is a broader scope when it comes to monitoring,” he said, referring to biodiversity and contaminant levels.

Renner defended his department’s capacity to oversee development and said the government wasn’t about to change its polluter-pays principle, which some say has created too much industry self-monitoring.

He pointed out that Alberta has been negotiating with oilsands companies for two years on increasing environmental bonds to guarantee cleanup. A new deal is expected “very soon,” he said.

Federal Environment Minister John Baird wasn’t available to answer questions about Ottawa’s role in the oilsands.

Renner stopped short of calling for more federal involvement, something environmental groups have wanted for years.

“This is a provincial resource,” he said. “That being said, this is a resource that crosses provincial boundaries and there is a role for the federal government. We need to make a greater effort to co-ordinate our activities.”

Don Thompson of the Oil Sands Developers Group said that even though it already takes more than two years to complete an environmental impact assessment, industry is willing to comply with what the government wants.

“To the degree that governments want more information on environmental or socio-economic impact assessment, we’re here to provide them with their requirements.”

He pointed to a recent agreement between developers to share tailings pond technology as an example of how the industry is working to comply with regulations.

“The history of the industry demonstrates that we’re more than capable and willing to step up to the plate.”

Rachel Notley of the Alberta New Democrats echoed the report’s point that the government still hasn’t required industry members to prove their plan to cover tailings ponds with clean water will work.

“What they’ve identified is a lack of investment for reclamation, a lack of knowledge about how to reclaim the tailings ponds, a lack of study and knowledge about groundwater, a lack of work on cumulative effects and overall a lack of resources give to the environment ministry,” she said.

“If we were a lawless, Wild West frontier, you’d expect this lack of understanding and lack of regulation. These guys have been in charge for 40 years.”

Greenpeace spokesman Mike Hudema said the report confirms what his group has long said about greenhouse gas emissions from the oilsands.

“The report clearly shows that the tarsands emissions are going to present a major problem for the Canadian government in meeting its climate obligations,” he said. “This government is completely asleep at the wheel when it comes to managing the tarsands industry.”

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