Oilsands monitoring needs scientific rigour: panel

Environmental monitoring in the Alberta oilsands is insufficient and needs to have "rigorous scientific design and execution" to be effective, a provincially-appointed expert panel concludes.
Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner awaits the start of a news conference Tuesday where he discussed a report on how to improve environmental monitoring in the province. (CBC)

Environmental monitoring in the Alberta oilsands is insufficient and needs to have "rigorous scientific design and execution" to be effective, a provincially-appointed expert panel concluded in a report released Tuesday.

"Monitoring organizations suffer from inadequate funding, weak scientific direction and a general lack of resources to take on the enormous challenge of monitoring," the report states.

The panel, which was announced by Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner in January, recommends Alberta have an entirely new scientifically-grounded system, managed by an arm's length, permanent organization known as the Environmental Monitoring Commission.

Panel co-chairman Hal Kvisle says the report is not a scathing indictment of the current monitoring system.

"We would observe that within Alberta, some of the most sophisticated environmental monitoring programs that occur anywhere in the world, are in place here already," he said. 

Kvisle said current monitoring programs like those run by the Wood Buffalo Environmental Association and the Alberta Biodiversity Institute do good work and the panel isn't recommending they all be shut down.

"It may well be that a number of those programs may continue," he said. "What we're proposing is that a commission be created that would organize all of this and make sure that these different programs are focused on a consistent set of objectives and that we really get the best environmental monitoring data that we can."

The panel made 20 recommendations including clarifying the responsibilities of the federal and provincial governments for environmental monitoring, creating a publicly accessible data system and involving First Nations and Métis people in the new commission's activities.

The report states the stakeholder groups in charge of monitoring are not integrated, have different purposes and, therefore, are not doing a good job.

This lack of integration means cumulative environmental effects of the oilsands are not known.

"Consequently, the overall 'state of the environment' is not well understood," the report states.

No time frame for implementation

Renner received the report on June 30 and released it in advance of a review by the federal and provincial governments. He offered no deadline for when a new system will be put in place but said his staff will start reviewing the recommendations right away. 

"I want to make it very clear that we have no intention of leaving this report on the shelf," he said.

Renner conceded that the current monitoring system is ad-hoc and piecemeal and could use improvement.

"We believe that we have a good solid basis to start from, but we've also never said that there's not room for improvement and this is all about seeking improvement, seeking excellence and that's what this report is about," he said.

The system is recommended to be phased in gradually, with work starting in the Lower Athabasca Region. Renner said Alberta is committed to working with the federal government on implementing a new system.

Opposition skeptical

The Opposition environment critics both expressed concerns with the recommendation that Alberta set up an arm's length commission for monitoring.

"Based on the track record of this government, I'm very leery of this," Liberal environment critic Laurie Blakeman said.

Blakeman likened the proposed commission to organizations like the Energy Resource Conservation Board or the former regional health authorities, which she said would allow the government to deflect difficult questions away from itself.

Blakeman said the province can also silence these commissions by cutting funding, which would leave them with insufficient numbers of employees needed to do the job.

NDP environment critic Rachel Notley expressed concerns about who is proposed to make up this proposed commission.

"If you look at the structure that they are suggesting, the scientists will simply be advisory to this body, but the actual people running the show will be essentially industry executives," she said.

Notley also took issue with the makeup of the panel itself, which she said had too many industry representatives and not enough scientists.

Water monitoring in the oilsands is currently performed by the Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP), which is funded by industry.

Last year, the program was criticized by David Schindler, a world-renowned water biologist at the University of Alberta, after he published a study with his colleague Erin Kelly that linked toxins in the Athabasca River to oilsands mining.

RAMP officials had said that the toxins were caused by natural sources in the land.

But the findings in Schindler's report led him to conclude that the current monitoring regime was defective and insufficient, and prompted the federal and Alberta governments to convene expert panels on the issue.