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Oil sands monitoring plan a good step forward Add to ...

Andrew Leach is an Associate Professor at the Alberta School of Business. He blogs on energy, environment, and oilsands issues at http://www.andrewleach.ca and is on Twitter @andrew_leach

Environment Canada has released the second of two phases of a proposed environmental monitoring plan for the oil sands, and one need only look at the second name on the list of authors on the first page to understand its significance: Dr. David Schindler.

Dr. Schindler is one of the most high-profile and well-respected personalities in the debate over the true environmental impacts of oilsands. Dr. Schindler was recently quoted as saying he would be, "hard to satisfy on oilsands."

As Canadians, we should all be hard to satisfy on oil sands and any other development with potential impacts on our environment. We certainly should not accept development without reliable information on impacts.

The plan lays out a clear roadmap for, "generating the data necessary to provide assurance that the oil sands are being developed sustainably." The key questions which remain are whether such as system will be implemented and whether the data collection will be complemented by the enforcement of the rules that protect both our environment and the value of our resources. While most of the oilsands focus of late has been on the battle over pipelines, getting reliable assessment of and limits on the environmental impacts of oil sands is just as important and will be just as contentious.

This second phase of the proposed monitoring plan tackles three additional areas to complement the monitoring of the Athabasca River system proposed in Phase 1 in March, 2011. First, it expands the geographical scope over which water quality, aquatic biodiversity, and the effects of acid precipitation will be monitored. Next, it proposes an aggressive program of air quality monitoring. Finally, the plan includes the monitoring of terrestrial biodiversity and habitat. From mercury to acid rain to caribou -- the plan covers it all.

The monitoring plan will, "provide a basis for separating changes related to oil sands activities from natural influences such as natural bitumen seepages." The naturally occurring bitumen deposits along the Athabasca and other waterways have provided both a monitoring challenge and perhaps a convenient excuse since concerns over the environmental impacts of the oil sands first arose. The importance of getting as close to the truth as possible on this separation cannot be overstated.

A key innovation in this plan is the application of triggering mechanisms through which signs of damage trigger more monitoring of the detected impact and vice versa if no impacts are detected. This ensures that monitoring resources will be deployed as efficiently as possible, and allows monitoring intensity to adapt to the initial results to provide better information over time. The challenge with this type of approach is to ensure that the net is cast wide enough initially, so that impacts which are occurring do trigger additional scrutiny and are not missed at the first pass. Sufficient resources must be in place from day one for this to work.

Alberta has committed to a cumulative effects approach for environmental management. The plan lays out the roadmap to collect the data which would be needed for such an approach. By developing the data to understand the sources of impacts on ecosystems, future impacts will be predicted with more accuracy. The challenge will be to complement the assessment of potential cumulative impacts with an acceptable set of tolerances which define the limits under which development will be allowed to occur. The task of monitoring and assessing impacts is challenging, but it will pale in comparison to the task of setting and enforcing limits to those impacts.

Implementation of these recommendations will be expensive, and the plan, "does not deal with implementation issues like funding or roles and responsibilities of existing organizations or institutions." There are many ways in which this could be interpreted, but it certainly sounds like an invitation to the province of Alberta to figure this out in a hurry in co-operation with the government of Canada. Unfortunately, there is no right answer as to how this program should be funded.

An industry-funded system will inevitably be subject to questions of objectivity, while a taxpayer-funded system is not ideal either. A hybrid system funded through fines for violation and backstopped by taxpayers may be a workable middle ground -- after all, it is taxpayers who will ultimately benefit from the sustainable management of the resource. Regardless of how it is funded, the independence of the monitoring system from both government and industry must be clear and unimpeachable from the outset.

Albertans and Canadians should be concerned about what these data will show, but that is no excuse for burying our heads in the sand. The data may show that the impacts of oilsands on our natural environment are far greater than has been acknowledged by governments and industry to date. If that is the case, then we will have some tough choices to make. Regardless of what the data show, the integrity and transparency of a true, world-class monitoring system generating publicly available data will allow oil sands impacts to be understood and managed. Only with reliable and comprehensive data will our governments be able to make informed decisions on the management of the oil sands resource for the benefit of Albertans and Canadians. Until this plan or another approach which accomplishes the same outcomes is implemented, governments will have trouble defending decisions on oil sands, whatever they may be, both at home and on the global stage.

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