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Liquid mine tailings are pumped into a drying area at a Suncor Energy Inc. oil sands operation. (Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail)
Liquid mine tailings are pumped into a drying area at a Suncor Energy Inc. oil sands operation. (Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail)

Alberta, Ottawa beef up oil sands monitoring Add to ...

Alberta and Ottawa will add more than 90 monitoring stations to beef up environmental testing in the oil sands, a costly new system expected to be financed by industry.

The new plan is set to roll out over the next three years and will swallow up the existing piecemeal system of air, water and land monitoring.

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However, industry hasn’t committed to picking up the tab, and the new program will, for now, be run jointly by the federal and provincial governments – not independently, as recommended by expert panels last year.

Government officials say that’s because they’re pushing to implement as much new monitoring as possible before the spring melt, and will worry about the governance structure later.

“We look forward in the province to moving forward on the independent commission,” Alberta Minister of Environment and Water Diana McQueen said at Friday’s announcement, held at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

Until then, it will be jointly led by Alberta (which has jurisdiction on its resources) and the federal government (which has more scientific capacity, and is responsible for cross-border rivers).

“We’re all aware that the scope and the scale of our shared challenge requires a shared effort,” federal Environment Minister Peter Kent said. He called the new plan the “most transparent and accountable” system of any oil-producing nation.

The new system will boost the number of locations where environmental samples are taken; the frequency at which they’re collected; and the number of contaminants being tested for.

The number of permanent water monitoring stations will double, from 21 to 43, as will biodiversity testing stations, from 35 to 72. Wildlife monitoring, essentially a non-factor today, will expand from three to over 25 stations.

Some – it’s unclear how many – will be in place as soon as this spring.

Raw data generated by testing will be publicly available online, including more detailed meta data preferred by researchers. It will undergo scientific peer review after three years, and every five years thereafter. (External peer reviews conducted on the former system at similar intervals produced scathing assessments, but little change. Mr. Kent said the open data will act as a de facto ongoing peer review.) “There is no doubt the status quo wasn’t sufficient to deal with growing development,” Ms. McQueen acknowledged, calling the new system “Alberta’s most critical need.”

The new monitoring sites include a handful in the Northwest Territories, where the major river going through the oil sands runs into, and Saskatchewan, where air pollution can be carried from the oil sands, near the border in northeastern Alberta.

The program will also begin testing cumulative effect – until now, environmental monitoring has been done site by site. It allows the province to know only what’s going on at each mine, with no sense of the total impact of all the mines clustered together.

Top academics who have sat on federal and provincial panels that laid out recommendations about how the new system should be set up say the scientific plan is fairly sound.

“I was, frankly, pleasantly surprised by the science... It really did look like they took the scientific advice seriously,” said John Smol, a researcher at the Queen’s University Department of Biology who sat on one federal review panel.

Instead, it’s the governance they question, and did so when presented with a draft plan earlier this week by governments. They say it must be independent.

“All the scientists, without exception, pointed out the problems with the current proposal,” said Andrew Miall, a University of Toronto geologist who also sat on the federal review panel. “What all the scientists are very worried about is that under the present management structure, there is the appearance of the old problem – that governments will not for long allow to continue a program that is producing results they don’t want to hear about.”

It’s unclear how quickly new permanent stations will be operating, but monitoring at current stations will be increased this year – in some cases, from once annually to once monthly.

The new plan’s cost is estimated at $50-million annually, up from the $20-million for the existing patchwork system. Mr. Kent said he expects industry will pay.

Industry, however, wants to see the fine print first.

“We haven’t yet seen all the details of that funding,” Greg Stringham, vice president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said. “If it’s effective, and it’s going to be done efficiently, then the industry’s going to be committed to it. But hard to commit to that until we’ve seen the details of the funding.”

The plan addresses only the oil sands region. Alberta continues to develop a new environmental monitoring system for the entire province – the oil sands system will be one piece of that. “It’s also important to note – we’re not done yet,” Ms. McQueen said.

Opposition critics say the new system must be independently monitored if it’s going to have any credibility, and questioned whether there’ll be any public input.

“I’m still not seeing a lot of detail. I’m not convinced,” said Linda Duncan, the lone New Democrat MP in Alberta and a long-time critic of the state of oil sands environmental monitoring. “I think it’s a step forward that the government is finally admitting they did not have a basic monitoring system.”

It’s also unclear who will do the new testing – Environment Canada is facing budget pressures, and Alberta seemed to signal it would rely on contracting out work to private labs. “It’s pretty clear that the degree of expertise needed for this stuff is very high and it’s generally lacking in the consulting world. It’s generally lacking in industry. Which basically falls on academia or government and governments have generally been releasing their science capacity (through staff attrition),” said Bill Donahue, a researcher with the Alberta-based Water Matters advocacy group.

“We need boots on the ground and a lot of work put into implementing environmental protection programs,” added Laurie Blakeman, a provincial Liberal MLA. “...If it all happened, it would be very good. But I have serious doubts that it will all happen. It’s too vague, too far in the future and there are no concrete details about the money.”

Follow on Twitter: @josh_wingrove

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