Long road ahead for environmental monitoring in the oilsands by Jennifer Pagliaro (Toronto Star – December 18, 2011)

The Toronto Star, has the largest circulation in Canada. The paper has an enormous impact on federal and Ontario politics as well as shaping public opinion.

Government “outsourcing” of environmental monitoring in the oilsands has created a fractured system lacking scientific credibility and transparency that caters to oil industry interests, top scientists and environmental groups say.

As environmental groups’ criticism for development in the oilsands finds renewed vigour — with Kyoto abandoned and Total’s Joslyn North strip mine approved in the span of less than a week — the disjointed array of monitoring groups tasked with protecting vulnerable ecosystems simply can’t keep up.

And while the Alberta government promises plans for a new comprehensive monitoring system as early as next month, many are worried it will never match the pace of development.

The provincial government passed most of the responsibility for monitoring land, biodiversity, air and water quality in the oilsands to third-party groups as development boomed in the late ‘90s. Now, production is forecasted to more than double by 2025 — nearly 4.1 million barrels of bitumen per day.

“The Alberta government believed that they could handle all of this by outsourcing the problem to these multi-stakeholder organizations,” said Andrew Miall, a geology professor at the University of Toronto and member of two government panels on the oilsands. “They lost sight or didn’t understand the need for the kind of scientific oversight that they’re now being criticized for not having. It basically sort of blew up in their faces.”

Although there are a dozen organizations that do monitoring in the Lower Athabasca region — approximately 93,000 square kilometres in northeastern Alberta which holds 81 per cent of the province’s bitumen reserves — Miall said nearly all of them lack “top-level” scientists on staff.

Alberta Environment also does its own monitoring, but a report from a provincially-commissioned panel on monitoring says their efforts “do not appear to be comprehensive or well-organized.”

Responsibility for monitoring largely falls on the province, though federally Environment Canada focuses on cross-border air and water flows, fisheries and First Nations.

But Alberta Environment says the move toward a new comprehensive monitoring system, in partnership with Ottawa, could be announced as early as January.

“We all recognize that the world is watching, that we need to do more to demonstrate environmentally-responsible energy development in the oilsands,” Alberta Environment spokesperson Mark Cooper said. “And a good monitoring system to bring Albertans, Canadians and the world confidence in that is what we intend to do.”

Experts on Canada-U.S. relations say domestic criticism of monitoring can creep onto Capitol Hill, testing Canada’s relationship with our primary trading partners.

“It certainly matters because of the pressure that is put by the environmental lobbies within the United States on the State Department and on the White House,” said Colin Robertson, vice-president of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

It was David Schindler, an ecology professor at the University of Alberta, who first effectively blew the horn on inadequacies in monitoring the oilsands with a 2010 Nature journal article, calling programs for waterways “sporadic and poorly designed.”

Today, Schindler blames the lack of expertise in provincial government and many of the third-party monitoring groups.

“My guess is that the monitoring program was so poor because the people were poor,” the former Alberta Environment senior scientist said. “They didn’t know what they were doing.”

Cooper said criticism of ministry scientists isn’t news to them, but isn’t correct.

“We have some very good, very well-qualified people within Alberta Environment that take their roles very, very seriously as it relates to ensuring that we do the best to protect our environment,” he said.

Meanwhile, Environment Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada have announced major cuts to staff.

For the rest of this article, please go to the Toronto Star website: http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/politics/article/1103759–long-road-ahead-for-environmental-monitoring-in-the-oilsands

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