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Fool's Gold: Alberta's Monitoring of Oil Sands

Yesterday, the Government of Alberta released the final report of its Environmental Monitoring Panel, which has recommended the creation of an arm's-length Environmental Monitoring Commission to oversee a new environmental monitoring, evaluation and reporting system.  Whereas the government's monitoring priorities and interests until now have only been concerned with tracking industry compliance with air and water quality guidelines, the Panel has adopted the recommendations from a host of previous critics and independent science reviews, all of whom have highlighted the need to assess environmental effects of industrial development, on both a local and cumulative, regional scale.

Chief among the findings of the Panel was its adoption of the federal Oil Sands Advisory Panel in December 2010 that existing monitoring programs were of little use to decision-makers because they have "a limited capability to ensure that the new knowledge created by the monitoring activity is actually able to be used." Yesterday, Environment Minister Rob Renner  described the existing environmental monitoring and assessment systems in place as  "ad-hoc and piece-meal", insisting the view of the government has been consistent all along.  

After years of watching approval after approval of major oil sands projects on the basis, experts have testified at these regulatory hearings environmental monitoring and the assessment system are scientifically incompotent. The Government of Alberta's and industry's continual public relations defence campaigns promoting a view that everything is fine, this change in stance provides only cold comfort to those interested in legitimately pursuing sustainable development.

Until now, the Government of Alberta and the energy industry have viewed environmental assessments and evaluations as the enemy of economic development. However, in the words of the Panel, "Alberta requires credible, comprehensive data and information to more fully understand environmental impacts and make good policy decisions. Environmental monitoring, evaluation and reporting will provide the basis for good environmental management decisions and, in turn, good resource development decisions." Put another way, the ability to make good resource development decisions depends upon good environmental management decisions that are based on strong, science-based environmental monitoring and assessment.   One can only conclude that our environmental management and resource development policies and decisions thus far have not been good ones.

In recommending that the Government of Alberta radically overhaul environmental monitoring and assessment systems in Alberta, the Panel also provided a damning view of the state of science in Alberta Environment. Cuts to Alberta Environment's scientific staff and budgets over the last 20+ years have reduced its scientific capacity to the point of being incapable of performing adequate environmental monitoring and assessment. As a result, the Panel recommended that large teams of highly qualified and specialized scientists be created, with the necessary in-house laboratory facilities to support their work and continual evaluation of the calibre of science. 

Even if the Government of Alberta adopts all the recommendations of its expert panel, we will still be far behind the eight ball. It will take at least a couple of years before the environmental monitoring commission is operational and capable of performing scientifically rigorous environmental monitoring and assessment activities. It will be at least several more years before scientific research begins to provide the information we need to make informed decisions. Meanwhile, oilsands project applications are expected to almost triple the total of oil production have already been approved, and more applications for major oil sands projects are certain to continue.

Rigorous environmental monitoring and assessment systems should have been in place decades ago.   According to the panel, "Protecting our environment and quality of life is not some distant or hypothetical challenge; it is a very real imperative that requires response now."[i]

Monitoring provides information that permits us to detect environmental change; but, monitoring won't affect the rapid rate of approvals of major oil sands projects, or prevent or mitigate the adverse impacts of oil sands operations on water resources or on the environment while oil sands projects continue to expand.  Although the effort by the province to improve on monitoring in the oil sands region is laudable, without a clear demonstration by the Government of Alberta of a desire to pursue legitimate sustainable development objectives, the creation of an environmental monitoring agency will do little or nothing to help Albertans regain what may become a gaping deficit in natural capital. Our wetlands continue to be drained, and our forests cleared and fragmented. More importantly, applications for major oil sand operations continue to be approved. While the Panel's first recommendation emphasizes the need for comprehensive environmental monitoring, evaluation and reporting and an enhanced energy regulatory process, Alberta is currently in the process of stream-lining all aspects of energy regulation.  Its plan is to create a new super-regulator that will be in charge of all regulatory matters related to the energy industry in Alberta because current regulatory processes and approvals are viewed as too complex and too time-consuming.

Creating a completely revamped environmental monitoring system to assess the effects of development on Alberta's air, lands, and water is a necessary and good step in the right direction. Unfortunately, while we need it now, it will take substantial time to increase scientific capacity and put new organizational and operational systems in place, and start producing the scientific currency that we are sorely lacking. Until then, environmental limits and thresholds will remain unknown  and environmental and resource management decisions will continue to be made in the dark. So far, the Government of Alberta has only released the recommendations of its expert panel upon receiving them.  They have not reviewed the recommendations and have not accepted them. The only sign the Government of Alberta is taking seriously the issue of its failure to support and implement legitimate environmental monitoring and assessment will be the denial of approvals for major industrial projects that continue to rely on the results of the existing "ad hoc and piecemeal" environmental monitoring systems for their approvals.  Until that happens, it will simply be business as usual.


[i] The Panel clearly stressed this imperative by highlighting the word "now" in their report.



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