Canada's Environment Minister has struck up an independent panel of leading scientists to review environmental monitoring in the oil sands - rejecting an offer from the Alberta government for a joint federal-provincial panel.
The wide-reaching review, which will be done in a swift 60 days at the request of Minister Jim Prentice, will likely focus on the often-criticized, industry-led Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program.
Recommendations of the panel, made up of a chairwoman and five highly respected independent academics, will be released publicly. The announcement came two weeks after Mr. Prentice, an avid fly fisherman, was "disgusted" by images of deformed fish pulled from the Athabasca River, which runs through Alberta's oil sands.
"I want to get to the bottom of this quickly, and I want five of Canada's leading scientists to provide me with their advice on whether the monitoring system that we're using is good enough," Mr. Prentice said.
Mr. Prentice is acting alone. Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner said the announcement was "surprising," as he was hoping to help set up a joint panel.
The ministers now appear set to battle over who is in charge of environmental oversight of the oil sands. "We are the lead jurisdiction," Mr. Renner said, but Mr. Prentice has flatly insisted that water management is a federal responsibility. Mr. Renner conceded the federal review "will probably lead to some sort of revision in the way we do our monitoring in the region."
The announcement was praised by environmentalists.
"I don't think I've ever written a blog before called, 'Well done, Mr. Prentice,' " said Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence. "This is the most happy we've been in a while."
The panel comes a month after the release of a study by University of Alberta biologist David Schindler, who found the Athabasca River had elevated levels of poisonous elements such as mercury and lead. Dr. Schindler dismisses the Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program as inadequate, and approved of the federal panel.
"The technical people on the panel are very strong," he said in an e-mail.
Fred Kuzmic, a onetime RAMP steering committee leader and now its spokesman, said the agency will co-operate unreservedly with the panel, and is open to suggestions.
The announcement came a day after director James Cameron criticized oil-sands development as unfettered and environmentally "appalling." He specifically criticized RAMP. Mr. Prentice denied there was a link between the visit and Thursday's announcement, but acknowledged Mr. Cameron's comments were "certainly not helpful" to Canada's image abroad.
The panel will help "reassure not only Canadians, but the international community that we have the highest possible environmental standards," he said.
With a report from Nathan VanderKlippe in Calgary