Oilsands monitoring deal inked by Ottawa, Alberta

Ottawa and Alberta have reached a deal outlining how a long-promised environmental monitoring agency for the oilsands will be run.

Questions remain over agency's independence from government

Ottawa and Alberta have reached a deal outlining how a long-promised environmental monitoring agency for the oilsands will be run.

"The signatures are in place," said Wayne Wood of AlbertaEnvironment, who added his office was informed Thursday that federal minister Peter Kent signed the deal earlier this week.

The agency is seen as a critical part of both governments'position that the oilsands are being developed responsibly. But questions remain over the extent of the agency's independence from the government.

Scientists have been in the field measuring the environmental impact of vast oilsands developments since spring 2012, but were doing the work under what amounted to a handshake deal between the two governments.

This week's deal could be the final step to bring scientific credibility to assessments of the environmental impact of many billions of dollars in industry activity.

Provincial agency to be run by apointee

Alberta Environment deputy minister Ernie Hui said the Alberta Environmental Monitoring Agency will eventually keep tabs over the entire province and will also oversee the federal-provincial agreement on the oilsands.

The agency will be run by a provincial appointee who is to be at arm's length from the government. That person will also be responsible for making sure Alberta lives up to its side of the oilsands monitoring deal, which  includes setting scientific goals and budgets.

Hui said there are no assurances from Ottawa that its side of the deal will be managed independently from government. That position is currently filled by an Environment Canada assistant deputy minister, an arrangement that may well continue.

"A governance structure similar to that will have to be in place once the administration moves over to the agency. The agency will play that role with whomever the federal government designates."

Environment Canada confirmed Thursday that a senior bureaucrat will continue to be involved in decision-making on oilsands monitoring.

Think-tank questions partiality of gov't appointee

Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute, a think-tank focused on developing sustainable energy solutions, said giving a government official that much potential influence could undermine the program's independence.

That impartial role was one of the main recommendations of an expert panel convened by the province to suggest how environmental monitoring should be done.

"Key questions remain about the governance of the arms-length agency and it would be preferable to have input on the draft legislation and (regulations) before they are tabled," Dyer said.

"The federal government does seem to be far less interested in independent oversight."

Environment Canada spokesman Mark Johnson said that's not the case.

"Working in partnership with the federal government to deliver a specific monitoring program does not change the independence of the proposed monitoring agency, which will be determined by the government of Alberta," he said.

NDPs call for "science-driven" assessment

Alberta New Democrat Rachel Notley said scientists, not bureaucrats, need to be in charge of all the agency's work.

"All the reviews have been clear that there needs to be independence from government," she said. "The lead players need to be science-driven."

She called for the deal to be made public.

Legislation on setting up the agency should be ready for the fall, said Hui. An information portal to release data gathered by scientists has already been unveiled.

Earlier this spring, the province passed legislation allowing it to collect money from industry to pay for oilsands monitoring, expected to cost about $50 million a year.

Oilsands monitoring became an issue when scientists raised repeated questions about the quality of work done under the province's old regional aquatic monitoring program. It failed two scientific peer reviews and was criticized by a panel convened by the Royal Society of Canada.

Its findings that contaminants in the Athabasca River couldn't be attributed to industry were repeatedly contradicted by scientific papers published in major journals. 

In September 2010, then-federal environment minister Jim Prentice struck a panel to investigate the quality of environmental monitoring in the oilsands. Weeks later, Alberta announced its own panel.

By the end of the year, the province created a group to set up a scientifically credible plan to assess industry impacts. That effort culminated in this week's agreement between Alberta and Ottawa.