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A tailings pond at a facility near Fort McMurray, Alta., Tuesday, July 10, 2012. (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
A tailings pond at a facility near Fort McMurray, Alta., Tuesday, July 10, 2012. (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

environment

Oil sands monitoring must be credible Add to ...

It made for a dramatic photo op when federal Environment Minister Peter Kent and his counterpart in Alberta, Diana McQueen, swooped in via helicopter this week to check out some of the new oil sands monitoring sites in northern Alberta. The new stations are the result of a joint federal-provincial plan announced in February to sharply beef up the scientific study of the cumulative effects of oil sands development on water, air, land and biodiversity.

The two levels of government deserve praise for moving ahead with a system that will examine many more sites, more frequently, and look for a much broader number of contaminants than ever before. Compared to the inconsistent and haphazard testing in the past, the new program is a huge improvement.

Still, there is more to be done, and the expansion of monitoring needs to be sped up. Already the program is long overdue. Despite years of claims by industry that the oil sands were being developed in a sustainable manner, report after report noted that there was little scientific evidence to support this and insisted that far more data needed to be gathered. Finally, industry and government players woke up to the fact that they had to gather more evidence to prove their position, especially in light of U.S. and European concerns over “dirty oil.”

It will be several more years before the monitoring program is fully in place. Indeed, only half of the planned air-quality monitoring stations will be installed five years from now – far too slow a rollout.

Another key issue that has yet to be resolved involves who will oversee the data generated at the test sites. Both Alberta and Ottawa – which are currently running the program – have expressed general support for an independent supervisory committee, but it has not yet been established. Independent oversight is crucially important, as is full and transparent disclosure of any findings. The federal government’s cuts to science programs, and its attempts to muzzle some of its own scientists, have damaged its reputation. The only way to gain trust among aboriginal groups, environmentalists and the public at large is to put control of the data in an independent body’s hands.

If, as Mr. Kent said this week, the oil-sands monitoring program is to “give some of our critics abroad tangible scientific evidence of the responsible way the oil sands … are being developed,” that evidence must be open, accessible and credible.

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