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Canada's existing framework for monitoring the oil sands' environmental impact is simply 'inadquate,' a new federal plan says. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Canada's existing framework for monitoring the oil sands' environmental impact is simply 'inadquate,' a new federal plan says. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Energy

Why oil sands monitoring is still a long way off Add to ...

The findings have trickled out for months – report after report, panel after panel – all in an effort to turn around public perception after 40 years of lax environmental monitoring of the oil sands.

And finally, on Thursday, came a federal plan to monitor the air, water, flora and fauna surrounding the development of one of Canada’s critical economic resources.

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The comprehensive plan, which says the existing framework is simply “inadequate,” was put together with recommendations from an independent committee and will measure impacts downwind and downstream of the oil sands. At an estimated cost of $50-million a year, it is endorsed by dozens of credible, independent scientists.

In the eyes of many, it’s long overdue. Neither Alberta nor Canada currently have a way to assess the cumulative effect development has had throughout Northern Alberta. Meanwhile, heavy metals have been found in a major local river, and hundreds of fish have been found with deformities – raising questions that require monitoring data for conclusive answers.

Although a plan is in place, many problems persist.

The first is jurisdiction. Ottawa is responsible for cross-border rivers and migratory birds and had taken a hands-off approach to the oil sands before swooping in after Alberta dragged its feet on monitoring.

The governments are now jockeying to be seen as the leader on a file increasingly under a microscope. Alberta released its own monitoring plan earlier this month. Environment Minister Peter Kent released his department’s final plan Thursday in Ottawa, on a day when Alberta’s own Environment Minister, Rob Renner, was unavailable while attending an American summit.

Mr. Renner’s office, in turn, released a tersely worded statement, suggesting Alberta doesn’t consider Mr. Kent’s plan final and the province’s “goal remains to work with the federal government to develop a state-of-the-art monitoring, evaluation and reporting system.”

Outspoken University of Alberta researcher David Schindler, who has authored key studies on the region and was one of the scientists involved in the federal plan, said the province is “meddling.” One leadership hopeful for Alberta’s governing party panned its “weakness” on the file, while the opposition Liberals likened the federal intervention to how an “unruly child would be scolded by its parents.”

A second problem, universally acknowledged, is one of implementation. The federal plan will take years to put into action. Until then, it won’t be able to provide data that academics say should be considered before projects are approved. Meanwhile, new mines continue to get the go-ahead, with oil production projected to double by 2020.

“While I’m proud of the work that they’ve done, I’m also very well aware of the work that remains,” Mr. Kent said.

Another problem is cost – a significant issue as Ottawa slashes the budget of its environmental assessment department.

Mr. Kent said Thursday that industry is “quite prepared to cover” the $50-million, but he jumped the gun. While they’re “broadly supportive” of the monitoring plan and have pledged some funding, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers said both sides haven’t sorted out who is paying for what. “That's a discussion we think needs to be had. It’s not yet been had,” CAPP president Dave Collyer said.

The plan itself has shortcomings too – one environmental group said it lacks strict, enforceable pollution limits, while other observers say it doesn’t sufficiently address groundwater contamination. This is critically important because deep reservoirs are used for in situ, or underground, oil sands mining. The method is becoming more common and is water-intensive.

As in situ booms, any final plan needs to address how to monitor groundwater, said William Donahue, a limnologist, or freshwater expert, with Alberta’s Water Matters advocacy group.

“Groundwater will largely remain a pretty big mystery, which is pretty risky considering the majority of future oil sands growth will be in situ,” he said.

As such, the federal plan is mostly praised, even by critics, as a long-overdue step to bring credible oversight to the oil sands. It is, however, simply a road map. And the road ahead is long.

“It’s the cookbook for a chef. It’s not dinner,” Dr. Donahue said, later adding: “It’s still years away before we have any idea what the state of the environment is.”

With a report from Gloria Galloway in Ottawa

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