Skip to main content

A Nexen oil sands facility near Fort McMurray, Alta., is seen in this aerial photograph on July 10, 2012.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

The revamping of environmental monitoring of the oil sands was supposed to be the federal government's defence against suspicions of widespread damage.

Now, a full year after Alberta and Ottawa unveiled a three-year plan to set aside their differences and keep a closer watch on the air, water and habitat in northern Alberta, there are still no formal results.

The Conservatives are striving to shore up their environmental credentials in the wake of a public chiding from the federal environmental watchdog and weighty words about climate change from U.S. President Barack Obama.

Story continues below advertisement

The centrepiece of Canada's credibility is the oil sands monitoring program. But progress on that front has become caught up in federal-provincial negotiations about technical details.

"We're not yet at a stage where we can release the data and say, 'here is what we currently know,'" said Karen Dodds, assistant deputy minister of Environment Canada's science and technology branch.

But they are getting close, she says.

Federal and provincial scientists have already scaled up their monitoring of the water systems in areas around the oil sands. Because they were able to start their co-operative efforts last year before the spring melt, they were able to gather data from deposits on top of the snow.

The scientists are also bolstering previous work done on air-quality monitoring. On the biodiversity front, they have begun monitoring specific species.

"All in all, on the ground, a significantly increased effort," Ms. Dodds said in an interview.

But the governments' promises to publish its data for all the world to see, use and judge accordingly have not yet been fulfilled – despite anticipation that the facts would begin flowing before the end of 2012.

Story continues below advertisement

"We will make the system highly transparent. We will ensure that the scientific data that is collected from our monitoring and analysis is publicly available with common quality assurances and common practices in place," Environment Minister Peter Kent said a year ago, at a joint news conference with Alberta Environment Minister Diana McQueen.

"It is critical that we get the development of Canada's oil sands right."

The hope is to start releasing data through a publicly accessible portal soon – perhaps by the end of the month, although no date has been made final.

Some types of data would be streamed continuously as scientists produce it. Other data would be released at periodic intervals of three or six months. And other categories would be released more holistically, presented in a way that would prevent analysts from coming to spurious conclusions based on a partial picture, Ms. Dodds said.

Even though researchers are already producing different types of information, the program can't publish until it can reconcile its current data with information produced in the past, and what is still being produced, by an array of regional organizations, said Ms. Dodds.

And everyone involved has to agree on how the data should be presented, create standards for the future and relate different data sets together.

Story continues below advertisement

"We're not at that point yet," she said. Why not? "It's just time and effort. Folks from both Alberta and my shop are absolutely working full out on this."

But politics are clearly involved, too. Alberta has long resisted federal involvement in how it manages its natural resources. While natural resources are indeed a provincial responsibility, environment is a shared federal-provincial jurisdiction.

The province has made it clear that it wants to take a more dominant role in how the oil sands are monitored. To that end, Alberta is setting up an arm's-length environmental monitoring agency led by scientist Howard Tennant, who pointedly criticized federal involvement when he was appointed last October.

"This is Alberta and it's our resources and it's our responsibility," Mr. Tennant said at the time.

"It would be wise for us to work in co-operation with them and enter into contracts but the way I see it they're not running Alberta."

And then there is the bill to pay for it all. Industry players have agreed to pay a maximum of $50-million a year for the monitoring, but so far there is no governance structure to collect the money. Key industry players say they don't want to be involved in paying for research done by some regional groups.

Story continues below advertisement

So for now, the effort is being financed by government in the hope of recuperating the money later. Ms. McQueen told The Canadian Press last week she wants to see a faster resolution to that issue.

As they wait, environmentalists say new oil sands developments should be put on pause.

Without reliable data on how existing operations are cumulatively interfering with nature, authorities should not be proceeding with other permits, said Jennifer Grant, director of oil sands programming at the Pembina Institute.

"As always, the eyes of the world are on this resource," she said. "We need to manage this resource seriously."

Still, the man whose research about oil sands pollution prompted a widespread questioning of government monitoring says he is encouraged what he has heard so far.

"Scientifically, it's huge progress," said ecology professor David Schindler at the University of Alberta.

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Schindler said he also wants answers about who will pay for the new system, and is concerned about lack of aboriginal input and the lack of young scientists involved. But he is enthusiastic about the prospects of seeing data made public by the end of February.

"I'm happy with the scientific progress. I'm not happy with the fact that the taxpayers are still paying for this."

Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter
To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies