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Caterpillar trucks working in the oil sands in Alberta, Canada. (Handout/Caterpillar Inc./Handout/Caterpillar Inc.)
Caterpillar trucks working in the oil sands in Alberta, Canada. (Handout/Caterpillar Inc./Handout/Caterpillar Inc.)

Ottawa, Alberta to unveil oil-sands monitoring strategy Add to ...

The federal and Alberta governments will announce a new joint oil-sands monitoring strategy on Friday, one they say will be led by scientists but remain - for now - under the direction of government.

Amid concerns about the industry’s environmental performance that have imperilled major projects such as the proposed Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipelines, both governments within the past two years struck expert panels to advise them on strategy. The resulting reports recommended a host of changes - in short, a much more robust system monitoring water, ground and air quality under a system that’s independent and open to peer-reviewed academic study.

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Since then, however, the governments have declined to implemented any changes - dragging their feet, in the eyes of some academics. The federal report was submitted in December, 2010, and the province received its report in July, 2011, but both have sparred over who controls the oil sands and, therefore, the monitoring of them. The federal government sees it as a joint responsibility, while Alberta has insisted the province must have the lead.

“It’s just been a thundering silence there, no surprise,” says David Schindler, a University of Alberta researcher behind a study demonstrating elevated levels of harmful elements in the Athabasca River, which runs through the oil sands. He is a vocal critic of the current monitoring regime, and the uproar over his study helped spark the reviews of existing procedures.

“Talking to the federal people who’ve been involved [several weeks ago] they assured me the hold-up was Alberta. ... I do know some of the people who were on the last Alberta panel have been in contact. They’re getting pretty agitated [by the delay]” he said earlier this week.

They’ve now reached a deal – three months after Alberta got a new premier and environment minister – on how to monitor the industry at a time when its production is skyrocketing. Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent will join Diana McQueen, Alberta’s Minister of Environment and Water, at the University of Alberta for Friday afternoon’s announcement.

“What you’re going to see [Friday]is a full commitment by both governments to a world-class, science-based program that will deliver a comprehensive, scientifically rigorous and transparent monitoring program,” said Mark Cooper, an Alberta Environment and Water spokesman. "Alberta and Ottawa worked side-by-side, step-by-step to create a program that is good for Alberta, good for Canada and good for the environment. ... We’re very proud of what we’ve come up with.”

It’s unclear how the new system will take shape.

The federal panel’s report found that Alberta did not have a state-of-the-art monitoring system in place. It recommended a robust system administered by Environment Canada, and observers believe experts from the federal department will indeed take the lead in the new strategy announced Friday.

The provincial panel, meanwhile, recommended 20 changes, including creating an arms-length monitoring “commission” and making data publicly available. The data will be available, but the commission isn’t ready. Alberta says it’s trying to roll out monitoring as quickly as possible and hopes to create a commission in the coming months. Until then, government and top bureaucrats will lead the process.

Getting monitoring in place should be the priority, the governments argue. “I would agree with that,” said Hal Kvisle, a retired oil industry executive who co-chaired Alberta’s review panel, a mix of academics and corporate leaders. “So they’re very focused on getting things going in that specific area and doing further work in the next few months in terms of structure and governance.”

In short, an independent panel will have to wait. Academics have said, however, that a system must be fully independent to be credible.

“It has to be administered independently of either government. Both the provincial department and the federal department have lost so much public trust that nobody will ever believe anything that goes through ministerial filters from either one. Seems like every week there’s a new muzzling story,” Dr. Schindler said earlier this week. “So there has to be a way that people are confident that things coming out as a result of the monitoring program are trustworthy – and not green-washed.”

Friday’s announcement is one program in a broader system that will boost environmental monitoring throughout the province, not just in the oil sands. This is because Ottawa wants to focus on the oil sands, as per Friday’s announcement, while the Alberta government is trying to do a broader, province-wide overhaul.

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