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

Ottawa, Alberta to unveil oil-sands monitoring strategy Add to ...

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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