Panel urges better environmental monitoring of oilsands

OTTAWA — A high-level advisory panel has told Ottawa and Alberta to put politics aside and set up a world-class environmental monitoring system for the Alberta oilsands.

OTTAWA — A high-level advisory panel has told Ottawa and Alberta to put politics aside and set up a world-class environmental monitoring system for the Alberta oilsands.

But within hours of the release of the panel’s report Tuesday urging the two governments to iron out their jurisdictional issues, there were already signs of federal-provincial friction.

In Ottawa, federal Environment Minister John Baird said he would start implementing the panel’s recommendations immediately, putting Environment Canada in charge of setting up a new water-quality monitoring system.

But in Edmonton, Premier Ed Stelmach suggested Alberta should take the lead. His provincial environment minister launched a separate revamping of the monitoring system just this week.

“Those resources are owned by Albertans. There is some cross-jurisdictional responsibility on the environment, but I am very confident that we are doing a good job in monitoring,” Stelmach told an Alberta radio station.

Baird said he was willing to work with Stelmach, and Stelmach said he was ready to co-operate — but only to a point.

“I am taking the minister at his word, but I can assure you that if there is some interference that is not based on scientific evidence, then we are going to take them to task,” Stelmach said.

The advisory panel of scientists — convened in September by former federal environment minister Jim Prentice — warned that the public has no clear idea what the impact of the oilsands has been, because data has not been collected and sorted in an organized way.

Monitoring is done by a “fragmented” array of authorities and groups, with no established baselines for comparisons and no overarching, integrated view of the entire ecosystem, panel chairwoman Elizabeth Dowdeswell told a news conference.

“There is clearly a lack of leadership and co-ordination,” said Dowdeswell, former head of the United Nations environment program.

“Until these significant shortcomings are addressed, there will continue to be debate about the data. There will continue to be uncertainty and public distrust, both of industry’s environmental performance and governments’ oversight.”

The report pointed out that key pieces of data were handed over to the Alberta environment ministry once a year in hard copy only.

“It’s pretty damning,” federal Liberal environment critic Gerard Kennedy said. “It’s as damning as science gets. Canadians have been unprotected all these years” by lack of standards.

The panel recommended a new system be set up to establish baselines, collect all the relevant data, and refer it to a group of renowned scientists for review.

It also said Environment Canada was widely recognized as having the capacity to lead the effort. But it said science clearly needs to trump politics in analyzing the impact of the oilsands.

“Do we have a world-class monitoring system in place? In short, no. But we could have,” said Dowdeswell.

The industry’s future depends on having a credible system in place, the panel said.

Despite Ottawa’s frequent claims in the past that the oilsands industry is well monitored, Baird agreed with the panel’s analysis and recommendations.

“We heard the panel’s message loud and clear. And we are ready to act,” Baird said at the same news conference.

“Obviously we’re concerned, and we want to up our game.”

He emphasized that the new framework will be transparent, with methodology and findings available to the public at no charge.

The new framework will set “the gold standard of sustainability and stewardship,” Baird vowed.

He agreed with the panel’s recommendation that industry should pay for the monitoring system. But he did not say how companies would cover the costs, nor did he venture a guess at how expensive it would be.

Despite the prospect of extra charges, the business community did not immediately attack the recommendations. Rather, like the panel itself, the oil and gas industry association urged Ottawa and Alberta to quit squabbling over jurisdiction and get on with the job.

“We certainly look to the two levels of government to iron out jurisdictional issues so we can all work toward solutions,” said Travis Davies, a spokesman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

“We think it’s important, especially if you’re going to look at a user-pay model, where industry is paying, that we do not have duplicity, that we have an efficient system that arrives at the outcomes that Canadians expect.”

Environmentalists, too, urged the governments to co-operate.

But Professor David Schindler — a world-renowned University of Alberta water expert whose findings prompted governments to look more closely at how they monitor the oilsands — said Ottawa needs to take charge.

He said the federal government has clear jurisdiction to take the lead in monitoring because it has responsibility for fisheries, cross- boundary water, national parks and aboriginal people.

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