Skip to main content

A tailings pond at a mine facility as seen from a helicopter tour of the oil sands near Fort McMurray, Alta.JEFF McINTOSH/The Canadian Press

After unveiling a joint effort to monitor environmental conditions around the oil sands, Alberta and Ottawa spent another year negotiating terms of the deal and worked closely with a major oil industry lobby group on it, documents show.

Correspondence records released to The Globe and Mail under the Access to Information Act show Canada's Joint Oil Sands Monitoring (JOSM) program, first announced in February, 2012, remained a work in progress this year.

It's unclear what the sticking points were, but Alberta – after being sent a draft version eight months ago – said "stringency" will be essential in striking a final deal.

E-mails between Environment Canada's deputy minister Bob Hamilton and Dana Woodworth, Alberta's deputy minister of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, show frequent oil-sands talks took place between January and March this year.

The e-mails also show David Collyer, president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers lobby group, was a regular figure in talks – the only non-government official included in the e-mails.

The JOSM program was announced in 2012 as a three-year effort to set up a more robust system to monitor the air, water, wildlife and land quality around the expanding oil sands. That announcement came after a 2010 report from a federal Oil Sands Advisory Panel found "significant shortcomings" in the existing system, and Ottawa promised a "gold standard" monitoring plan. But Alberta had publicly pushed back against any suggestion that Ottawa might set up its own unilateral program.

Mr. Woodworth wrote on Jan. 28 this year he wanted a deal that "remains silent on the term," though the partly redacted e-mails leave it unclear what he was referring to. Mr. Hamilton replied saying it "looks like we're good to go" and referring to "a very positive step." Mr. Woodworth also wrote on Jan. 28 that Alberta is "well positioned with our existing framework" – widely criticized as inadequate – to help roll out the new JOSM program.

Then federal environment minister Peter Kent sent Alberta a tentative deal on Feb. 11. In continuing discussions, "the key will be stringency and timing," Mr. Woodworth wrote on Feb. 18 to Mr. Hamilton. On March 3, Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Woodworth met, according to Alberta expense records. On March 4, the two had a joint meeting with CAPP's Mr. Collyer, the newly released e-mails show.

On March 18, Alberta Environment Minister Diana McQueen wrote Mr. Kent another "version of the agreement" that "outlines a clear and collaborative process to co-manage the implementation of the joint plan."

On March 25, Mr. Woodworth, Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Collyer spoke again. On March 27, Ms. McQueen's letter about a new "version" was stamped as received.

On March 28, Mr. Hamilton wrote Mr. Woodworth to say they "have a green light to move forward with OS monitoring." By then, nearly 14 months had elapsed since the program was announced. The final deal was signed in June.

According to a draft version of the deal, the three-year-plan includes up to $50-million in annual industry funding and "builds on a foundation of monitoring that is already in place." It establishes an Oil Sands Monitoring Program Committee chaired by staff from each department, but leaves it up to ministers to ultimately resolve any dispute. The deal expires "no later than Sept. 30, 2015," but can be cancelled by either side with six months' notice. In a statement, Environment Canada said the monitoring program remains on schedule.

The agreement also says the governments "intend to make all data generated through the Joint Monitoring Plan, and associated metadata, freely and publicly accessible through a portal." One study already produced by the program – which found mercury levels rising in bird eggs – wasn't immediately released on the online JOSM portal, despite being published academically.

Interact with The Globe