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Suncor Canada's oil-sands upgrader facility sits on the banks of Alberta's Athabasca River in July of 2006. (Larry MacDougal for The Globe and Mail/Larry MacDougal for The Globe and Mail)
Suncor Canada's oil-sands upgrader facility sits on the banks of Alberta's Athabasca River in July of 2006. (Larry MacDougal for The Globe and Mail/Larry MacDougal for The Globe and Mail)

Alberta steps up oil-sands oversight Add to ...

The Alberta government is overhauling its monitoring of environmental impacts from the booming oil sands industry, announcing its decision on the eve of the release of a new report that will roast both the province and Ottawa for their efforts to date.

At a news conference in Calgary, Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner, who indicated he had been briefed on the report's contents, acknowledged that the province has to increase its oversight of the industry in order to win credibility for its claim that the oil sands are being developed in a sustainable manner.

As a result, he is establishing a panel of experts to advise the government on how to build a "world-class" monitoring and reporting system, including what equipment and staffing levels are required to do the job. He also pledged to make monitoring data publicly accessible.

"With the growth of development, we need to ensure that the oil sands are being managed under the closest scrutiny and oversight," Mr. Renner said.

His announcement came as his federal counterpart, John Baird, prepared to released a report on Tuesday from a high-level oil-sands advisory review panel. Environment Canada received the independent report last week but has kept a lid on it. Sources tell The Globe and Mail the report is critical of both the province and Ottawa for failing to ensure proper oversight of the industry's impact on water, air and land.

Both levels of government have cut back spending on environmental monitoring, leaving much of the data collection on the Athabasca River, for example, to an industry-led group, the Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program. It's industry funded, and Mr. Renner suggested industry will also fund the beefed-up monitoring.

The credible regulatory oversight is essential to maintain public support, Mr. Renner said, a statement echoed by Premier Ed Stelmach.

"We have to be absolutely sure that our water monitoring is right and that it's dependable," Mr. Stelmach told The Globe and Mail. "It's starting to go in the right direction. Took a little while to kick start it."

After a pause in development during the 2008-09 recession, the oil sands are booming again, with expansion plans and offshore companies buying into the world's largest proven reserves of crude oil. If development proceeds as expected, production from the oil sands could double to three million barrels a day by 2020.

A report by the Royal Society of Canada last week said both the federal and provincial governments are woefully unprepared for such an increase in production and its impact on water, saying regulation has already fallen behind the pace of development.

"Recently, there have been a number of very credible reports that indicate it is necessary government step up its game as well, and that is what we are announcing today," Mr. Renner said.

William Donahue, science adviser for the Canmore, Alta.-based group Water Matters, said he expects the high-level panel to make clear that Ottawa has withdrawn from the regulatory oversight of the oil sands, where it is responsible for the cross-border Athabasca River as well as native rights.

"It comes down to a pretty complete failure of the federal and provincial governments to adequately regulate what is going on," he said.

RAMP water monitoring data are only partially made public. A Globe analysis earlier this month showed the agency had discovered 915 abnormal fish in oil sands rivers, but underreported the findings to Ottawa. The agency had already pledged to release its data this month, as Alberta's announcement Monday promised. It's now up to the federal government to decide its own role.

"Where's the signs that any of that [federal]regulatory responsibility is being exercised? It's just not there. If they're doing it, it's secret," Steve Hrudey, a University of Alberta professor who chaired the seven-member RSC report panel, said Monday.

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