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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A panel to set up group to set up board to set up agency

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If nothing else, the Alberta government knows how to issue a news release.

"Alberta will build the most comprehensive environmental monitoring program in Canada with the establishment of a new arm's-length environmental monitoring agency," said the opening sentence of a breathless news release issued Wednesday.

This is a big deal. The Alberta government has been promising for more than a year to not only set up an environmental monitoring system but to have it run by an agency independent of government.

To make sure reporters recognized the import of the occasion and to underline the fact government was really serious about doing something, the release came sprinkled with adjectives such as "comprehensive," "credible science" and that old standby, "world-leading."

Based on the news release, the government is finally giving us an independent agency to oversee a world-class monitoring system to measure and monitor the impact we're having on the environment. No government interference. The agency would start by monitoring the oilsands and then branch out into every region of the province. There's nothing like it in Canada. Work is to begin "immediately."

It's enough to make an environmentalist crack open a non-carbonated, non-aspartame, non-colourized beverage in celebration.

Except the work that's to begin "immediately" is that of a management board, not the environmental monitoring agency. Dig a little into the news release and you discover that what happened on Wednesday was the government announcing the creation of a board to recommend to government how to set up the agency. In fact, the management board announced Wednesday was the result of a previous working group that itself came out of a previous advisory panel.

For those of you keeping score and wondering how many steps it takes to actually set up a "world-class" monitoring agency, the answer is four. I think. At this point I'm beginning to get a little fuzzy on details, much like the government.

More than a year ago, the government appointed the Alberta environmental monitoring panel that recommended a scientifically rigorous and independent oversight body to monitor the oilsands. That led to the Alberta environmental monitoring working group that recommended a scientifically rigorous and independent oversight body to monitor the whole province, starting with the oilsands. Based on the working group, the government has set up the Alberta Environmental Management Board to figure out how to set up the Alberta Environmental Management Agency.

So we had a panel to set up a group to set up a board to set up an agency.

As for operating independently from the government, the new agency will be appointed by government, have its funding funnelled through government and send its reports to government. The public will have access to the monitoring data and reports, but the minister will be first on the list. It would seem the agency will operate at "arm's length" from the government in the way Alberta Health Services operates independently from government. Think of a marionette working at arm's length from the puppeteer.

If you're looking for a precedent, Environment Minister Diana McQueen received the environmental working group's report in June but didn't release it until Wednesday.

We still don't know how the new agency will be funded. Oilsands companies are, in theory, going to pump about $45 million a year toward monitoring of their industry. That would make sense, but the deal hasn't been made final.

One suggestion from the working group's report suggests the government could raise money from a possible "tax on all consumption of hydrocarbons." That sounds like a carbon tax. Let the controversy begin.

We also don't know how fast the agency will be up and running. McQueen thinks it might take six to eight months. Howard Tennant, the well-respected expert behind the environmental monitoring panel and the working group, thinks it might be closer to two years.

The agency, by the way, will be responsible for monitoring, not making sure industry complies with environmental laws. That will be left up to the minister.

McQueen assures us that despite all the unanswered questions, the announcement will lead to real improvements in environmental monitoring and protection. I want to agree with her, but I find myself agreeing more with NDP MLA Rachel Notley, who concluded, "There's a tremendous level of confusion for something we've been theoretically working on for two years."

gthomson@edmontonjournal.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 20, 2012 ??65525

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