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Caterpillar trucks working in the oil sands in Alberta, Canada.Handout/Caterpillar Inc.

The federal and Alberta governments will announce a new joint oil-sands monitoring strategy on Friday, one they say will be led by scientists but remain - for now - under the direction of government.

Amid concerns about the industry's environmental performance that have imperilled major projects such as the proposed Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipelines, both governments within the past two years struck expert panels to advise them on strategy. The resulting reports recommended a host of changes - in short, a much more robust system monitoring water, ground and air quality under a system that's independent and open to peer-reviewed academic study.

Since then, however, the governments have declined to implemented any changes - dragging their feet, in the eyes of some academics. The federal report was submitted in December, 2010, and the province received its report in July, 2011, but both have sparred over who controls the oil sands and, therefore, the monitoring of them. The federal government sees it as a joint responsibility, while Alberta has insisted the province must have the lead.

"It's just been a thundering silence there, no surprise," says David Schindler, a University of Alberta researcher behind a study demonstrating elevated levels of harmful elements in the Athabasca River, which runs through the oil sands. He is a vocal critic of the current monitoring regime, and the uproar over his study helped spark the reviews of existing procedures.

"Talking to the federal people who've been involved [several weeks ago] they assured me the hold-up was Alberta. ... I do know some of the people who were on the last Alberta panel have been in contact. They're getting pretty agitated [by the delay]" he said earlier this week.

They've now reached a deal – three months after Alberta got a new premier and environment minister – on how to monitor the industry at a time when its production is skyrocketing. Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent will join Diana McQueen, Alberta's Minister of Environment and Water, at the University of Alberta for Friday afternoon's announcement.

"What you're going to see [Friday]is a full commitment by both governments to a world-class, science-based program that will deliver a comprehensive, scientifically rigorous and transparent monitoring program," said Mark Cooper, an Alberta Environment and Water spokesman. "Alberta and Ottawa worked side-by-side, step-by-step to create a program that is good for Alberta, good for Canada and good for the environment. ... We're very proud of what we've come up with."

It's unclear how the new system will take shape.

The federal panel's report found that Alberta did not have a state-of-the-art monitoring system in place. It recommended a robust system administered by Environment Canada, and observers believe experts from the federal department will indeed take the lead in the new strategy announced Friday.

The provincial panel, meanwhile, recommended 20 changes, including creating an arms-length monitoring "commission" and making data publicly available. The data will be available, but the commission isn't ready. Alberta says it's trying to roll out monitoring as quickly as possible and hopes to create a commission in the coming months. Until then, government and top bureaucrats will lead the process.

Getting monitoring in place should be the priority, the governments argue. "I would agree with that," said Hal Kvisle, a retired oil industry executive who co-chaired Alberta's review panel, a mix of academics and corporate leaders. "So they're very focused on getting things going in that specific area and doing further work in the next few months in terms of structure and governance."

In short, an independent panel will have to wait. Academics have said, however, that a system must be fully independent to be credible.

"It has to be administered independently of either government. Both the provincial department and the federal department have lost so much public trust that nobody will ever believe anything that goes through ministerial filters from either one. Seems like every week there's a new muzzling story," Dr. Schindler said earlier this week. "So there has to be a way that people are confident that things coming out as a result of the monitoring program are trustworthy – and not green-washed."

Friday's announcement is one program in a broader system that will boost environmental monitoring throughout the province, not just in the oil sands. This is because Ottawa wants to focus on the oil sands, as per Friday's announcement, while the Alberta government is trying to do a broader, province-wide overhaul.

Natural resources are a provincial jurisdiction, which is why Alberta had fought off federal intervention in its oil sands (skepticism that dates back to the failed National Energy Program, still a sore spot for many in the province) before Alison Redford became premier in October. However, Ottawa has jurisdiction over migratory birds and cross-border rivers, both of which have been shown in studies to be affected by oil-sands development.

In 2010, Alberta's daily production of bitumen – the oily sand that must be "upgraded," or converted, to conventional oil – was 1.6-million barrels per day. The figure is set to more than double this decade, reaching 3.5-million barrels per day by 2020, the province predicts.

Over the past 15 years, monitoring has been a largely piecemeal affair, with the lead agency being the industry-funded Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program. It has been dismissed by critics as insufficient. The industry's foremost group, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, has embraced calls for a new system, anxious for a credible level of oversight as it's increasingly the target of environmental groups.

Mr. Kvisle, however, doesn't think the new program will quiet down concerns - environmentalists will still target the oil sands. Instead, he supports a new monitoring system for two reasons.

"One, if there is environmental impact going on, no one is more concerned about that than the people of Alberta - if there is very significant environment impact on the air, on the water, on environmental diversity," he says. "And if there are overblown statements being made, we want factual information to be able to refute them."


Five questions about today's oil-sands panel announcement

The federal and Alberta governments will lay out the first phase of an oil sands monitoring program Friday, a plan more than a year in the making.

It comes four months after Alberta Premier Alison Redford introduced a new environment minister, one tasked with overcoming years of bickering between the governments on oil sands monitoring roles. Both governments have received independent reports within the past 14 months on how to structure a monitoring system.

The plan is "a full commitment by both governments to a world-class, science-based program that will deliver a comprehensive, scientifically rigorous and transparent monitoring program," Alberta government spokesman Mark Cooper said.

Significant questions remain, however, about the program itself.

1. Will it be independent?

The provincial review panel recommended monitoring be done by a "commission" or some other body "independent of government, industry and special interests." Instead, Friday's plan will be led jointly by the two governments.

The province insists it's trying to roll out a monitoring system as quickly as possible, one based firmly in peer-reviewed science. The co-chair of the review panel expects a commission to be set up in the coming months. But any whiff of interference by the government could destroy the entire process.

2. What will it measure?

Current monitoring is piecemeal and sub-par, academics say. A comprehensive program has to tackle earth, water and air pollution and search for more chemicals and compounds than is done now. That means monitoring freshwater rivers and lakes (and the fish in them), emissions, spring runoff, animal impact and groundwater, which is consumed more often as the use of in situ, or underground, mining expands.

"Groundwater is the big elephant in the closet," said Peter Hodson, a Queen's University professor who co-authored a 2010 study revealing pollutants in the oil sands' Athabasca River.

3. Who does the testing?

There's a difference between simply monitoring data and researching. "That's one of the problems we've had with oversight all along – people presented as experts who aren't experts," said Bill Donahue, a researcher who works with Water Matters, an advocacy group.

So, bona fide experts are required to know what data is needed, collect it properly and tell the public what it means – and there's a shortage of them. "At both levels of government, they've been reducing scientific capacity," Dr. Donahue said.

4. Who pays?

Sources peg the new program cost at around $50-million annually. Government and industry have been at odds over who should pay, and excessive involvement from either of them could taint the monitoring system. Prof. Hodson suggests some sort of endowment fund that would cover the costs and ensure independence.

5. What next?

Alberta wants Friday's announcement to be one "program" among a broader, province-wide environmental monitoring "system." Other pieces – including an independent commission – are still expected.

"I'd say it's a work in progress," said Hal Kvisle, a veteran industry executive who co-chaired the provincial review panel. "I know there's a lot of urgency and a fair bit of emotion around this, but we're talking about setting up a reasonably significant undertaking here. Good work takes time."

Josh Wingrove

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