Canada’s energy industry is calling for government to disband two organizations involved in monitoring and mitigating the environmental impact of the oil sands.
But, in a surprising twist, a leading environmental group is largely backing the call for change by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, which laid out its proposal in a Sept. 7 letter to federal environment minister Peter Kent and Alberta environment and sustainable resource development minister Diana McQueen.
Signed by CAPP president Dave Collyer, the letter was sent amidst a broader effort to reform the work of tracking the oil sands’ impact on air and water in northeastern Alberta. Previous monitoring programs had largely failed to detect an industry impact on the environment there – a failure highlighted by independent research that pointed to rising levels of some toxins.
But the effort to bring in a new organization has been slow – and, according to the letter, at risk of losing momentum. To speed it up, CAPP offered a few suggestions, most notably saying the Regional Aquatics Management Program and Cumulative Environmental Management Association should go.
“We encourage Alberta to wind down these particular entities as expeditiously as possible,” Mr. Collyer wrote. “This is important to assure appropriate oversight, as well as cost management and efficiency.”
RAMP measures levels of toxins in water. Its work has been pilloried by environmentalists.
“We recommend that there is no role for RAMP in any future monitoring – its credibility is just too damaged, its reputation is not well valued,” said Simon Dyer, policy director with the Pembina Institute, an environmental consultancy and advocacy group in Alberta.
As for CEMA, Pembina withdrew from that organization in 2008, and has voiced concerns that some CEMA recommendations have been ignored by governments, placing its effectiveness into question. Mr. Dyer, however, said he did not want to leave the impression that Pembina supports disbanding CEMA, which fought back at the suggestion it disappear, saying its $5-million annual budget is put to good work and accusing Mr. Collyer of being motivated by a “desire to keep costs of operation for his member organizations to a minimum.”
CEMA’s work, which includes recommendations for best environmental practices, “has saved individual industrial proponents both time and money,” said CEMA executive director Glen Semenchuk in a statement. And, he said, shutting down CEMA “will also effectively silence the involvement of aboriginal, educational and environmental groups as they are presently not as involved in the exiting monitoring organizations.”
Beyond the shuttering of the two groups, CAPP calls for a new organization that is held at arms-length from both government and industry – matching demands made by environmentalists.
That organization “should provide a more directed and scientifically credible monitoring system that will better position governments and industry to determine the potential for the existence and significance of impacts to the environment associated with development of the oil sands,” Mr. Collyer writes. He adds that scientific monitoring needs to be clearly interpreted for the public, and should inform future policy shifts.
But the oil industry also makes clear it is limiting its support for new monitoring, repeatedly referring to a $50-million funding commitment as a “cap” it does not intend to exceed. It also suggested that government needs to find a way to compel energy companies to provide their share of that funding.
That rankled Mr. Dyer, who said the cost of monitoring the oil sands should be determined by scientific necessity rather than an arbitrary figure.
“It’s becoming increasingly clear that to monitor the environment well and appropriately, the true cost is more than $50-million,” he said.