Oilsands monitoring plan results not available yet

The revamping of environmental monitoring of the oilsands was supposed to be the federal government's defence against suspicions of widespread damage.

Officials say release slowed by federal-provincial negotiations over technical details

Politics has slowed an oilsands monitoring system agreed to a year ago between Ottawa and Alberta, but some data may be released in the near future. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

The revamping of environmental monitoring of the oilsands was supposed to be the federal government's defence against suspicions of widespread damage.

Now, a full year after Alberta and Ottawa unveiled a three-year plan to set aside their differences and keep a closer watch on the air, water and habitat in northern Alberta, there are still no formal results.

The Conservatives are striving to shore up their environmental credentials in the wake of a public chiding from the federal environmental watchdog and weighty words about climate change from U.S. President Barack Obama.

The centrepiece of Canada's credibility is the oilsands monitoring program. But progress on that front has become caught up in federal-provincial negotiations about technical details.

"We're not yet at a stage where we can release the data and say 'here is what we currently know'," said Karen Dodds, assistant deputy minister of Environment Canada's science and technology branch.

But they are getting close, she says.

Water systems monitoring

Federal and provincial scientists have already scaled up their monitoring of the water systems in areas around the oilsands. Because they were able to start their co-operative efforts last year before the spring melt, they were able to gather data from deposits on top of the snow.

The scientists are also bolstering previous work done on air-quality monitoring. On the biodiversity front, they have begun monitoring specific species.

"All in all, on the ground, a significantly increased effort," Dodds said in an interview.

But the governments' promises to publish its data for all the world to see, use and judge accordingly have not yet been fulfilled — despite anticipation that the facts would begin flowing before the end of 2012.

"We will make the system highly transparent. We will ensure that the scientific data that is collected from our monitoring and analysis is publicly available with common quality assurances and common practices in place," Environment Minister Peter Kent said a year ago, at a joint news conference with Alberta Environment Minister Diana McQueen.

"It is critical that we get the development of Canada's oilsands right."

Data could be released soon

The hope is to start releasing data through a publicly accessible portal soon — perhaps by the end of the month, although no date has been made final.

Some types of data would be streamed continuously as scientists produce it. Other data would be released at periodic intervals of three or six months. And other categories would be released more holistically, presented in a way that would prevent analysts from coming to spurious conclusions based on a partial picture, Dodds said.

Even though researchers are already producing different types of information, the program can't publish until it can reconcile its current data with information produced in the past, and what is still being produced, by an array of regional organizations, said Dodds.

And everyone involved has to agree on how the data should be presented, create standards for the future and relate different data sets together.

"We're not at that point yet," she said. Why not? "It's just time and effort. Folks from both Alberta and my shop are absolutely working full out on this."

But politics are clearly involved, too. Alberta has long resisted federal involvement in how it manages its natural resources. While natural resources are indeed a provincial responsibility, environment is a shared federal-provincial jurisdiction.

The province has made it clear that it wants to take a more dominant role in how the oilsands are monitored. To that end, Alberta is setting up an arm's-length environmental monitoring agency led by scientist Howard Tennant, who pointedly criticized federal involvement when he was appointed last October.

"This is Alberta and it's our resources and it's our responsibility," Tennant said at the time.

"It would be wise for us to work in co-operation with them and enter into contracts but the way I see it they're not running Alberta."

$50M a year

And then there is the bill to pay for it all. Industry players have agreed to pay a maximum of $50 million a year for the monitoring, but so far there is no governance structure to collect the money. Key industry players say they don't want to be involved in paying for research done by some regional groups.

So for now, the effort is being financed by government in the hope of recuperating the money later. McQueen told The Canadian Press last week she wants to see a faster resolution to that issue.

As they wait, environmentalists say new oilsands developments should be put on pause.

'As always, the eyes of the world are on this resource.' —Jennifer Grant, Pembina Institute

Without reliable data on how existing operations are cumulatively interfering with nature, authorities should not be proceeding with other permits, said Jennifer Grant, director of oilsands programming at the Pembina Institute.

"As always, the eyes of the world are on this resource," she said. "We need to manage this resource seriously."

Still, the man whose research about oilsands pollution prompted a widespread questioning of government monitoring says he is encouraged what he has heard so far.

"Scientifically, it's huge progress," said ecology professor David Schindler at the University of Alberta.

Schindler said he also wants answers about who will pay for the new system, and is concerned about lack of aboriginal input and the lack of young scientists involved. But he is enthusiastic about the prospects of seeing data made public by the end of February.

"I'm happy with the scientific progress. I'm not happy with the fact that the taxpayers are still paying for this."