Environmental monitoring data from Alberta's oilsands region is now accessible online at a web portal launched Monday by the federal and Alberta governments.
"Today, as the world celebrates Earth Day and showcases commitments to protecting the environment, Canada is contributing and doing our part, by delivering on our collective promise to ensure that scientific data from the monitoring activity is transparent and accessible," federal Environment Minister Peter Kent said in announcing the launch of the Canada-Alberta Environmental Monitoring Information Portal.
"With this portal, our respective governments are actively encouraging informed discussions and analysis on the impacts of oilsands development."
Alberta Environment Minister Diana McQueen added in her own statement: "By openly reporting on our data and our progress, we are ensuring the rest of the world recognizes our commitment to responsible and sustainable resource development."
The site describes the water, air, land and biodiversity monitoring taking place as part of a "world class" federal-provincial joint environmental monitoring plan for the oilsands region launched in February 2012. The plan is part of an effort to convince the world that Canada's oilsands are being developed responsibly and are not the dirty, environmental villain they are sometimes portrayed to be.
'Information isn't action.' —Megan Leslie, NDP Environment Critic
It is also an attempt to address criticism that the government isn't open about environmental impacts of the oilsands.
The industry-funded plan was expected to cost $50 million a year in its first three years and was to be managed jointly by the two levels of government. The phasing in of the plan started in 2012 and is expected to be completed in 2015.
The new portal includes a map of the monitoring sites, and data that has been gathered so far is available for download.
'Not a cause for concern'
A section describing the latest results states that preliminary tests show "low levels of oilsands development-related contaminants are present in both air and water" but the levels "are not a cause for concern." The website acknowledges that metal concentrations in some water samples exceed guidelines in spring and summer, but said that was due in part to "natural characteristics" of the Athabasca River.
With respect to air, sites close to oilsands development had double the levels of polyaromatic hydrocarbons, a class of chemicals that can be carcinogenic. Concentrations of nitrous oxide and sulphur dioxide, which can cause smog and acid rain, were comparable to those near a coal-burning power plant or a large city such as Toronto.
"As new data is collected, analyzed and validated, it will be posted and be publicly accessible," said a news release from Environment Canada.
The agency added that there will be more data as the plan gets closer to full implementation, slated for 2015.
Additional, complementary data is also available on another website, the Alberta's Oil Sands Information Portal.
NDP Environment Critic Megan Leslie questioned how useful the data will be, since it can't be compared with data from before the oilsands development.
"Government didn't do a baseline study, so even once we get this information, what will it mean, frankly?" she asked.
"For Earth Day, I would much rather have seen an announcement saying what they're going to do with that information, how they're actually going to try and protect our environment by using that information... Information isn't action."
Cautious praise from scientists
University of Alberta ecologist David Schindler, who has conducted research showing evidence that the oilsands are polluting nearby waterways, told The Canadian Press that the new data portal has good potential. However, he said the monitoring work needs independent oversight.
John Smol, a biology professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., who served on a federal oilsands panel appointed in 2010 to look into the state of oilsands environmental research and monitoring, said he thinks the launch of the portal is "great."
"But let's wait and see," he said in a statement. "I am interested in the quality and the type of data made available. It's too early to tell how effective this website will be. The devil is in the details."
One of Smol's panel's recommendations was to make the monitoring data transparent and available.
The oilsands' poor environmental reputation has led to international criticism and even boycotts. The federal government has said it would work hard to combat misinformation about the oilsands' environmental impact.