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Workers use heavy machinery in the tailings pond at the Syncrude oil sands facility near Fort McMurray, Alta. (MARK RALSTON/Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)
Workers use heavy machinery in the tailings pond at the Syncrude oil sands facility near Fort McMurray, Alta. (MARK RALSTON/Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

Group calls for new oversight for oil sands Add to ...

A new monitoring system for oil sands projects could deflect U.S. and European concerns over "dirty oil" and reduce damage to Canada's international reputation.

In a discussion paper to be released Friday at a conference at the University of Toronto, a group of influential Canadian academics says no new oil sands project should be approved without such a system, which would study effects on the region's air, water and wildlife.

Project approvals or water licences should not be issued until the federal and Alberta governments have "world-class scientific monitoring programs" in place, the group says.

The report was prepared by David Schindler, a University of Alberta ecologist, University of Toronto geography professor Andrew Miall, and Adele Hurley, director of the program on water issues at the Munk School of Global affairs at U of T.

A proper information and reporting system needs to be independent from industry, and involve a single integrated monitoring agency, the report says. It should include representatives from the provinces and territories in the region, the federal government and native people, and it should also have long-term funding for twenty-five years, the group says.

Without a co-ordinated system to study the long-term impacts of the oil sands, and the peer-reviewed data that would emerge from it, Canada's international reputation could be damaged at a time when some European and U.S. leaders are expressing concerns about "dirty oil," the group says.

The oil sands are coming under close scrutiny for their environmental impact, with some U.S. politicians keen to label them an undesirable fuel source. The European Union is also considering such a move, even though Canada doesn't export oil to Europe.

The discussion paper notes that most of the scientific monitoring of the oil sands has been farmed out to contractors, so there is a lack of consistency, independent review and transparency. Environment Canada has the expertise to do some of this work, the authors say, but it has been "largely absent from oil sands work due to lack of funding and lack of political direction."

Several other reports issued in the past year have also criticized the monitoring of environmental impacts from the oil sands.

Last December, for example, the Royal Society of Canada issued a comprehensive peer-reviewed study that said there needs to be a much more robust environmental assessment program. It also said Alberta's regulatory system is too weak and Ottawa is not involved enough in environmental monitoring.

Another report, from a federally appointed oil sands advisory panel, said there is not enough scientific evidence to support the oil industry claim that the oil sands is being developed in a sustainable manner. It recommended a better monitoring system.

The paper being released Friday argues that most project approval and licensing of the oil sands is carried out for individual projects, with little consideration of longer-term cumulative environmental effects.

Despite the claims from some industry players that reclamation of tailings ponds can be performed much more quickly than expected, "the cost and complexity of the restoration task is widely underestimated or misunderstood," it says.

The new paper says the most crucial environmental issue for the oil sands involves water. "There is a pressing need for public data relating to potential tail pond seepage, mine-site dewatering, and the effects of subsurface steam injection at the in-situ projects," it says, including more sampling of the Athabasca river, and testing of lake and pond sediments.

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