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oil sands

A Nexen oil sands facility near Fort McMurray, Alta.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Alberta is giving itself more power to strengthen environmental monitoring in the oil sands, tabling a new law that would force energy companies to comply and pick up the tab.

The new law, if passed, would allow Alberta to introduce "one or more environmental monitoring programs" – in other words, programs in addition to a system already being jointly implemented with Ottawa in the oil sands. The two levels of government have sparred over whose domain oil sands monitoring falls under, as high-profile projects, such as the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, have put a spotlight on the region's environmental track record.

Bill 21, which was tabled Thursday, gives Alberta new powers to set the "nature and scope of an environmental monitoring program" and force "the imposition of fees on participants," or oil sands companies.

The changes are the latest step in the implementation of the joint federal-provincial monitoring plan, Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development Minister Diana McQueen said. Without the law, there was nothing to ensure that all oil companies paid the same rate. "What [industry] asked us to do is to then put this in legislation," Ms. McQueen said in an interview.

Government and industry insist the changes are essentially legislative housekeeping, on the heels of an announcement earlier in the week where the joint monitoring program's first results were released. Industry has agreed to pay up to $50-million a year for three years to cover the cost of the joint program, first announced last year.

Bill 21 gives Alberta the power to force oil companies to pay for environmental monitoring indefinitely, though Ms. McQueen said those obligations have yet to be determined. Companies had expected to make some contribution after three years, said David Pryce, vice-president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. A law was needed to ensure each oil sands company paid its share, he said.

Long-term funding for monitoring programs is currently a "key gap" in the provincial rules, said Simon Dyer, policy director for the Pembina Institute, a Calgary-based environmental think tank. The bill would "be a positive step as there is a need for a mandatory mechanism to equitably collect funds from industries," Mr. Dyer said in an e-mail.

Alberta hopes to improve environmental monitoring in other parts of the province, not just the oil sands, and therefore the new law allows for several monitoring programs, Ms. McQueen said.

A spokesperson for federal Environment Minister Peter Kent declined to commenton the changes.