Under extreme public and international pressure, the Canadian and Alberta governments put aside their jurisdictional pride to create a joint partnership to monitor the environmental impacts of oil sands development.
The program, which will cost C$150 million in its first three years, with the industry expected to contribute C$90 million, will displace an existing fragmented system of testing air, water and land affected by the massive operations in northern Alberta.
The number of permanent water monitoring stations will increase to 43 from 21, biodiversity stations will rise to 72 from 35 and wildlife monitoring stations will multiply to 25 from three. A handful of the stations will be placed in Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories to check air and river pollution.
Some will be in place this spring, but the plan will take three years to fully implement.
The program will begin testing cumulative impacts, replacing the current site-by-site testing which only allows the Alberta government to know what is taking place at each mine.
Raw data generated by the testing will be publicly available online, while the program will undergo scientific peer review after three years, then once every five years.
No arm’s-length commissionThe only immediate unhappiness among those who have challenged the inadequacy of the present system was the failure of the two governments to establish an arm’s-length commission to oversee the monitoring.
Although the two environment ministers — Peter Kent (Canada) and Diana McQueen (Alberta) — said they are working on an independent body, Andrew Miall, a University of Toronto geologist who sat on a federal review panel, said all scientists are worried the proposed initial management structure will only continue an “old problem.”
He said there is a concern that “governments will not for long allow to continue a program that produces results they don’t want to hear about.”
John Smol, a Queen’s University biologist who was also a member of the federal panel, said he was “frankly, pleasantly surprised” by indications that the governments “took the scientific advice seriously.”
Kent and McQueen both openly acknowledged that action was needed in the face of public opposition to oil sands development that has delayed plans to export crude through TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline and Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project, putting at risk thousands of jobs and billions of dollars of capital investment and government revenue.
2010 study forced issueThe two governments, after riding out years of arguments that oil sands development was adversely affecting the health of humans, fish and wildlife, had their hand forced in 2010 when University of Alberta aquatics expert David Schindler showed that the industry was generating 13 pollutants including arsenic, lead and mercury.
Schindler said he liked the new system with the notable exception that the results would be delivered to two government officials rather than a non-political, independent commission.
“This cannot be run by government in the current climate where both levels of government are clearly cheerleaders for industrial development at all cost,” he said.
But government sources said that getting to this point required the two governments to set aside differences over who should take the lead role.
Under the Canadian constitution, Alberta owns and controls development of its natural resources and Ottawa has jurisdiction over migratory birds and rivers that cross boundaries from Alberta into Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories, notably the Athabasca River, the main waterway through the oil sands region.
The new system is described by officials from the two governments as a “true collaboration” with nobody holding veto rights, making it an unprecedented federal-provincial partnership.
McQueen said Albertans and Canadians have “high expectations that we should excel at both energy production and environmental protection. We can have it both ways and we will.”
System will be extendedShe described the new system, shaped by advice from 100 scientists, will be the most progressive and comprehensive in the world once it is extended beyond the oil sands to cover her province’s entire petroleum industry.
“There is no doubt the status quo wasn’t sufficient to deal with growing development,” she said, calling the monitoring plan to answer to “Alberta’s most critical need.”
Kent said the program will involve monitoring “more places, more frequently, for more substances” and will offset “some of the more outrageous criticisms, myths and financially damaging mischaracterizations” of the oil sands sector.
He said the new plan is the “most transparent and accountable” method of any oil-producing nation.
Greg Stringham, a vice president with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said the plan is one element of a “strong foundation for the development of the oil sands. We’re very supportive of the increased level of monitoring that we’re talking about and we want it to continue to be effective, science-based and transparent.”