Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Oilsands monitoring stepped up

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EDMONTON -- To a cynic, it's 45 years late -- but to an optimist, it's better late than never.

The governments of Alberta and Canada are making good on their five-month-old promise to set up a joint monitoring system of the oilsands. For the first time since the oilsands industry became a going concern in 1967, both levels of government are working together to keep track of how it is affecting the air, water and land.

To prove the new system is gearing up, federal Environment Minister Peter Kent and Alberta Environment Minister Diana McQueen took reporters to the oilsands to visit several new stations that are part of the "scientifically rigorous, comprehensive, integrated, and transparent environmental monitoring program for the region."

This should have happened four decades ago -- and it should have -- but it's also something of a political miracle that it's happening at all.

Although ownership of the oilsands is a provincial matter, protection of the environment is a joint responsibility of the provincial and federal governments. And in politics, "joint responsibility" are fighting words. The two levels of government didn't just fail to get along, they actively competed against each other.

They also failed to properly monitor the oilsands, as several scientific reports pointed out. For years, the Alberta government insisted there was no evidence the oilsands industry -- the largest energy project on the planet -- was having any affect on the environment and the federal government seemed happy to live with that myth. But then came increasing pressure from environmental groups, internationally embarrassing news reports and a report from University of Alberta Prof. David Schindler in 2010 with compelling evidence the oilsands industry was elevating levels of toxic elements in the water.

Then the two governments began falling over each other to demonstrate who had the bigger environmental conscience.

The Alberta government announced it was setting up an independent scientific review only to have Ottawa announce one week later it had set up its own independent review. When Alberta announced its new panel would report in four months, the federal government said its panel would report back in two. If Enbridge is the Keystone Kops of the environmental world, Alberta and Ottawa were Laurel and Hardy.

Then things changed. In February, Kent and McQueen broke with precedent to hold a joint news conference to announce the new program, one that would more than double the number of stations, increase the frequency of monitoring from once a year to once a month and make the data available for everyone to see.

After years of shrugging off criticism of "dirty oil," governments were seemingly willing to put the matter to scientific scrutiny. Even critics were impressed by the scientifically rigorous system.

And last Monday, the two ministers were able to demonstrate the system is coming together.

Environmental organizations, such as the Pembina Institute, were quick to congratulate the governments (something of a precedent itself) by saying the announcement "showcases the progress made to date in developing a credible environmental monitoring system for Alberta's oilsands region. Seeing tangible, on-the-ground improvements is positive." Pembina, though, the governments must show "similar progress implementing an independent governance system."

In other words, the new system should report to a scientifically rigorous and independent oversight body. Currently, it reports to two bureaucrats, one provincial and one federal, which has critics fearing that for all the talk of change, the industry will continue to be governed by a hear-no-evil, see-no-evil school of monitoring.

According to sources in Alberta's environment department, McQueen has great sympathy for independent oversight but she has to keep Ottawa happy and the federal government is not as keen on the notion of handing over any power to a scientifically oriented panel.

The system won't be fully operational until 2015. A cynic would say it's taking too long, that it will only be half a step forward unless the new program is fully independent of government interference. But an optimist would say that after four decades of inaction, even a half step forward is moving in the right direction.

Graham Thomson writes for the Edmonton Journal.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 23, 2012 A11

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