News Articles Featured | Calgary Herald | November 05, 2011
Five months after two reports recommended a step change in how environmental monitoring is done in the oilsands, federal and provincial officials have yet to decide the process of how to negotiate improvements to their shared system.
In an interview with the Herald, newly appointed Alberta Environment and Water Minister Diana McQueen said this week that staff have been meeting to figure out how the two levels of government can cooperate, but she has not yet discussed the topic with federal Environment Minister Peter Kent.
Nor does she have a timeline on when those questions will be answered.
Meanwhile, the people who perform monitoring in the Fort McMurray area say they are both hopeful and fearful of what may result from the revamp.
Monitoring of land, air, biodiversity and water in the oilsands region is now handled by several not-forprofit, multi-stakeholder groups who watch for pollution from standing monitoring stations and also contract scientific experts from around the world to design and conduct additional studies.
The group that covers water, the Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program, came under fire over a year ago after University of Alberta ecologist David Schindler and his colleagues found its methods were inadequate to detect oilsands pollution, a contention backed by followup work by both provincial and federal panels.
In a report published June 30, the Alberta panel recommended the establishment of an "Environmental Monitoring Commission" to ensure "scientific oversight and organization and integration of activities" throughout Alberta, starting in the oilsands.
In July, Ottawa said it would set aside $50 million for an "integrated oilsands environment monitoring plan" to be developed by teams of scientists that would enhance scrutiny of everything from acidification in lakes to the health of fish across provincial boundaries.
Kevin Percy, lead scientist at the Wood Buffalo Environmental Association, which monitors air, earth and human impacts of oilsands, said he fears the politicians will design a top-down system where science will take a back seat to bureaucracy.
"That's kind of what they're saying, on some sort of commission, which scares me and I told the assistant deputy minister that," he said.
"If you load this up with too many layers of bureaucracy and management . . . we're going to get to the point where decisions take so long to come and there are so many levels of hierarchy and administration . . . We need to bring things together, but ultimately science has to drive the work."
Both Percy and Glen Semenchuk, a wildlife biologist who is the executive director of the Cumulative Effects Management Association, said Schindler's whistle-blowing was a good thing that may result in needed change.
CEMA designs monitoring programs and passes them on to the other groups to perform. But the other groups then have the option of performing the work or not.
"If nothing else, we should have some kind of a role to indicate whether the monitoring program is still on target, whether it is meeting its objective," said Semenchuk. "And if there is new technology or issues out there, we would probably be in the best place to identify those and make the monitoring agencies aware of it."
He said the work done by his group ultimately contributes to government policy in terms of regulation. CEMA has an annual budget of $6 million to $9 million, part industry and part government funded.
Semenchuk said he fears the new system could result in fewer resources for the groups doing the work.
"The only thing that concerns me now is we have two levels of government who are quite concerned about budgets and balancing budgets and usually when that happens, environment is not a high priority," said Semenchuk.
"They're talking about this worldclass monitoring system, but I don't think anyone really looked at exactly what does that mean and what dollars are you going to assign to it. If you're not going to assign decent dollars to it, don't do it."
Percy said the fractured nature of environmental monitoring today resulted from changing priorities throughout the history of the oilsands.
"Rather than looking at the region as a whole, everything just got compartmentalized and siloed, but that's not how you do things," he said, adding that, "it's really time to bring all this together."
WBEA's budget jumped from $2.7 million to over $8 million in 2007 when Percy joined the organization with a goal to expand its focus on sciencebased pollution research that goes beyond merely gathering data.
The association has recently studied the impact of tailpipe emissions from the heavy trucks that rumble around oilsands projects and is considering a study of the role dust may play in airborne sulphur and heavy metal pollution.
An independent board approves all of its projects and an annual budget is submitted for approval to its industrial members.
So far, said Percy, the oilsands companies haven't said no to contributing more than they are technically required to pay - this year's budget is $9.6 million and he's proposed $10.6 million for 2012.
Environmentalists have criticized the Alberta government for continuing to accept applications for new oilsands projects before nailing down a new monitoring system, but McQueen said the data available is sufficient to assess projects.
"We can up our game and do a better job, but that's not going to stop development," McQueen said.
"I don't think it has to be either-or. I think we have to up our game with regard to monitoring and environmental practices and industry has to catch up to those things we're doing."
But Jennifer Grant, oilsands director for the environmental Pembina Institute, said it's irresponsible to add new potential sources of pollution when world-class monitoring systems aren't in place.
"I think it should have been done yesterday," she said, adding that proponents of new oilsands projects now seeking government approval are citing RAMP studies that are now considered suspect.
"It's important to note that monitoring is really only meaningful if it results in changes in management. Alberta, for example, has monitored the steady decline toward extinction of caribou in the oilsands for over 20 years and we're still seeing a failure to act to protect their habitat."