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A tailings pond at a mine facility near Fort McMurray, Alta. (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
A tailings pond at a mine facility near Fort McMurray, Alta. (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Alberta’s new pollutant-monitoring agency to look beyond oil sands Add to ...

The ugly scars left on the northern Alberta landscape by the oil sands have prompted calls from around the world for an independent body to gather data on the ecological damage wrought by the energy industry.

But Ottawa has bowed out, with Environment Minister Peter Kent saying he doesn’t believe more oversight will make monitoring any better. So now, with the credibility of its primary economic engine at stake, Alberta is going it alone, announcing plans Wednesday for an arms-length agency that will collect and publish scientific measurements on pollutants across the province.

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A report prepared for the province calls for a raft of unusual measures to fund the monitoring agency, from a gas tax to a six-cent levy on every barrel produced from the oil sands.

And in an unexpected step, the man charged with creating the new monitoring agency says the province intends to go far beyond Fort McMurray with its data collection. It’s concerned, too, about the damage done by female contraception.

Women have been using “birth control pills for 50 years. Estrogen is something that goes into the water system and stays there,” said Howard Tennant, the former president of the University of Lethbridge who helped drafted the report and will chair the management board that will build the monitoring agency.

He added: “The impact of having estrogen and other things in our water system is something we have to know something about.”

At least one academic – Ray Copes, with the school of population and public health medicine at the University of British Columbia – suggests estrogen actually poses little risk to healthy drinking water, although it can affect aquatic life near waste water sites.

But for Dr. Tennant, the dangers of the pill, whose effects are unrelated to the oil patch, are an example of why Albertans should share in the cost of monitoring the environment.

“Where does pollution come from? It comes from you and I,” he said, adding the work will be done without federal involvement.

“This is Alberta. It’s our resources and it’s our responsibility to do this monitoring,” he said. As for Ottawa, “the way I see it, they’re not running Alberta.”

In fact, Ottawa has quietly rejected calls for independent oversight of oil sands monitoring, opting to do its work primarily through Environment Canada. In an interview Wednesday, Mr. Kent said data-collection plans are based on science and an external governance structure would do little to make the science more credible.

“For oil sands monitoring, we don’t believe that an external body is required to implement and administer,” he said. “We have the capacity to do that.”

Environmental and industry sources say it’s the first time Ottawa has formally acknowledged it doesn’t want independent management of oil sands scientific measurements – and may speak to Alberta’s desire to create its own agency, which will in turn contribute to joint federal-provincial monitoring plans.

But the Alberta agency remains far from reality. What the province has done is pledged to create a management board that will build up the monitoring organization in six to eight months.

Diana McQueen, Alberta’s Minister of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development , said the process will result in a credible organization. “Alberta is on the cusp of what I believe is a game change in environmental monitoring, evaluation and reporting.”

Funding for the agency remains a key unknown, however. The report that Dr. Tennant helped author suggested greenhouse gas and water levies, a $40-million annual tax on oil sands producers – which today would come out to six cents a barrel – and a “broad sustainability tax” that was not clearly defined.

Ms. McQueen declined to comment on the possibility of new taxes to fund the agency, but said, “we accept the funding recommendations in principle” laid out by the report – which is where the tax proposals originated.

Critics, meanwhile, questioned how “arms-length” the agency will be, since it will have a mandate drafted by government and report to the environment minister. In fact, Dr. Tennant said “industry knows perhaps more than government does about polluition … so our job is to work with industry and the people who live in that area.”

“It’s hard to claim something it’s arms-length when the government sets the terms of reference and everything,” said Keith Stewart, climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace.

He was also disappointed that the province has yet to create the actual organization that will do the monitoring work, even as new oil sands development “approvals keep going forward based on what we view as a flawed data and incomplete information.”

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