Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Oilsands monitoring stepped up

  • Print

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

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Jets fan gets inked

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS 060711 Chris Pedersen breeds Monarch butterflies in his back yard in East Selkirk watching as it transforms from the Larva or caterpillar through the Chrysalis stage to an adult Monarch. Here an adult Monarch within an hour of it emerging from the Chrysalis which can be seen underneath it.
  • PHIL.HOSSACK@FREEPRESS.MB.CA Winnipeg Free Press 090528 STAND UP...(Weather) One to oversee the pecking order, a pack of pelican's fishes the eddies under the Red River control structure at Lockport Thursday morning......

View More Gallery Photos


Do you agree with the sale of the Canadian Wheat Board to foreign companies?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google