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Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner announced Monday that a panel of experts would recommend how to improve water monitoring in the oilsands. ((CBC))

Alberta is changing how it monitors water in the oilsands, according to the province's environment minister who made the announcement one day before a federally appointed panel reports its findings on the issue.

A group of independent experts will gather in January 2011 and report to the province in June on how to best set up an environmental monitoring system for northern Alberta, which could serve as a pilot project for the rest of the province.

"With the growth of development, we need to ensure that the oilsands are being managed under the closest scrutiny and oversight," Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner said Monday in Calgary.

"Our ultimate goal is to build a world-class monitoring, evaluation and reporting system so that we can meet the environmental challenges we face in Alberta."

The province's announcement comes as the Oilsands Advisory Panel appointed by former federal environment minister Jim Prentice gets set to report on its findings Tuesday morning in Ottawa.

The panel was announced in September, one week after the province announced its own panel to review water data in the oilsands. The federal panel will report on research and is expected to make recommendations on the monitoring regime.

Industry to cover most new costs

The new panel announced Monday will also guide the province on how to implement recommendations from both the provincial and federal panels.

A number of recent "very credible" reports which call the adequacy of the province's oversight into question make it necessary for government to "step up its game," Renner said.

"We need to get on with this. It's important not only from an environmental protection prospective, but also from the point of view of our social licence to continue to develop these oilsands."

Renner said the province might need to upgrade equipment and add more staff on the ground. Industry would be expected to cover most of the extra costs.

Janet Annesley, vice-president of communications with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said she was pleased with the government's announcement.

"As public expectations have shown, we need to do more to assure Albertans and Canadians that development can occur responsibly," she said.

There is no specific information on what costs the industry would have to bear, but Annesley said if companies had to pay more, it would have to go towards what she termed a credible monitoring process, using qualified experts and based on science.

Water is currently monitored by a joint oilsands industry-provincial government group known as the Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program (RAMP).

However, that system has been strongly criticized by environmentalists and some scientists, including world-renowned water expert David Schindler from the University of Alberta.

Schindler linked toxic materials in the Athabasca River to oilsands development in a peer-reviewed study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in August.

But RAMP has said pollutants occur naturally because water flows through oilsands deposits. Schindler said the toxins found in his study were easily measured and any monitoring regime that did not detect them was incompetent.