News Articles Featured | Ottawa Citizen | July 21, 2011
CALGARY ‚Äî The federal government is set to announce Thursday a comprehensive environmental monitoring plan for the oilsands that will boost tests on water, air, animals and plants ‚Äî and seeks to spruce up the international reputation of the massive bitumen resource.
According to government sources, the $50-million “integrated oilsands environment monitoring plan” developed by teams of scientists will spur increased scrutiny of everything from acidification in lakes to the health of fish ‚Äî across provincial and territorial boundaries.
Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent is expected to lay out the plan during a news conference Thursday morning.
But even with scientific plans clearly laid out, questions remain about how closely Alberta and Ottawa will work together as environmental custodians of the oilsands.
“The first thing I am hoping to see is co-operation with the province, and not duplication of effort,” said Don Thompson, president of the Oil Sands Developers Group.
“Two parallel systems would be just a nightmare.”
University of Alberta ecologist David Schindler ‚Äî one of the expert reviewers of Ottawa’s monitoring scheme, who has long voiced concerns about government oversight of the oilsands ‚Äî said Wednesday that Ottawa’s new integrated environmental monitoring plan is sound.
However, Schindler said its success will depend on how quickly the plan is implemented, along with whether the federal push will include the dollars to back it up.
“It is hard to see how this will happen in an era when Environment Canada and other federal science departments have had budget cuts,” Schindler said in an e-mail.
Schindler added: “A few hours of profits from the oilsands would fund a very nice program.”
As Alberta’s oilsands production is set to increase, the resource has never been under greater scrutiny.
The environmental footprint has driven calls for more stringent regulations, and fuelled part of the opposition to major pipeline projects such as the Keystone XL. Since last year, both the federal and provincial governments have acknowledged oilsands monitoring programs have fallen short of what’s needed.
The “integrated” scheme to be announced in Ottawa Thursday builds on the first phase of the federal environmental monitoring plan ‚Äî released in March and specifically targeting water quality. Earlier this month, the Alberta government released its own Alberta Environmental Monitoring Panel report, meant to help create a “world-class” monitoring system.
The new federal plan to be laid out by Kent will emphasize a “triggering” approach that will see monitoring decrease “where no longer needed and increase where necessary,” according to the integrated monitoring report.
The scheme will see the number of water monitoring stations increase on smaller streams and tributaries in the oilsands region, and as far away as the Slave and Peace River water systems. It calls for an increase in air monitoring stations to check for pollution moving across borders from northern Alberta to Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the Northwest Territories. It will also focus on changes to birds, mammals, amphibians (such as wood frogs) and plants. Fish will be examined for toxic substances and other changes.
Hundreds of lakes will also be sampled to test for “acidifying pollutants” from oilsands emissions.
Although Alberta has a history of fighting hard to hold onto governance of the oilsands and other natural resources, Ottawa and the province both insist they are co-operating with each other this time around. Speaking in Vancouver at a meeting of provincial and territorial premiers on Wednesday, Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach said both levels of government are committed to establishing a state-of-the-art monitoring system.
“The next step is a rigorous review of this technical and strategic advice before putting it into action,” the premier said.
“We will work jointly with the federal government to give Albertans and Canadians full confidence that our environment is being protected and that development is occurring responsibly, while respecting jurisdictional responsibility.”