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Governments vow to overhaul environmental monitoring of oil sands development

Elizabeth Dowdeswell (R), chair of the Oilsands Advisory Panel, listens to Canada's Environment Minister John Baird speak during a news conference in Ottawa December 21, 2010.

Chris Wattie/Reuters/Chris Wattie/Reuters

The federal and provincial governments are vowing to establish a "gold standard" of environmental monitoring of the oil sands development after a series of reports that suggest regulators are flying blind due to a lack of scientific data.

At a news conference Tuesday, Environment Minister John Baird acknowledged that Ottawa has failed to rigorously keep track of the impact on air, water and land from the booming industry - knowledge that is essential for credible regulatory oversight.

Mr. Baird was responding to a report from the federally appointed Oil Sands Advisory Panel, which noted "significant shortcomings" in the federal-provincial system. "Until this situation is fixed, there will continue to be uncertainty and public distrust in the environmental performance of oil sands industry and government oversight," the panel warned.

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The minister said federal and provincial officials will, within 90 days, recommend a top-to-bottom overhaul of the environmental monitoring system. The government will next seek input from a group of independent scientists, and then move quickly to implement the plan, he said.

"The actions we take will be guided by science and by facts, not by politics and public relations," Mr. Baird said. "This is the one way that we can give Canadians and the rest of the world confidence that we have implemented and, just as importantly, are enforcing a gold standard of sustainability and stewardship."

Asked whether Ottawa had failed to meet its constitutional responsibilities to regulate the oil sands, Mr. Baird merely conceded there is a need to "up the federal government's game." He added, however, that the oil sands represent a major source of oil for the world, and of jobs for Canadians.

Environmentalists and opposition critics applauded the commitment but said it has been too long coming, and may be too late to affect industry plans to double production in the oil sands to 3.4-million barrels a day by 2020. Most of those proposed projects have already completed the environmental assessment review.

"We do not know the environmental impact to date from the oil sands, and so it is very difficult to make science-based, informed decisions during the regulatory process," said Nathan Lemphers, analyst with the Calgary-based Pembina Institute, which has called for a moratorium on further project approvals until the system is rebuilt.

Canada has come under increasing criticism over the environmental impact of the booming oil sands projects from environmental groups and even U.S. politicians.

For years, both Alberta and the federal government have played down all such concerns, saying the industry is committed to developing in a sustainable manner. But the oil sands report released Tuesday concluded that there is little scientific evidence to back up those assurances.

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"We believe that the establishment of a world-class system is fundamental to long-term environmental sustainability, economic viability and most importantly to really building and restoring trust and confidence in the eyes of Albertans, Canadians and the international community," said panel chair Elizabeth Dowdeswell, a former senior staffer at Environment Canada and former director of the United Nations Environment Program.

Mr. Baird endorsed the "polluter pay" principle in which the industry would shoulder the lion's share of additional costs, but said it may be more a matter of reallocating resources than spending new money.

Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner has also signalled his government's plan to rebuild the environmental monitoring effort in the Athabasca River area of northern Alberta, where the oil sands are primarily located.

In a Monday news conference, Mr. Renner said he would appoint a panel to help build a "world-class" monitoring, reporting and verification system of oil sands' impacts on water, air and biodiversity. A spokesman for Mr. Renner said on Tuesday that the two governments will work together to complete the job.

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