As we await results, environmentalists say new oilsands developments should be put on pause.
OTTAWA—The revamping of environmental monitoring of the oilsands was supposed to be the federal government’s defence against suspicions of widespread damage.
But, there’s still no formal results more than a 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.
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 US 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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. “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.”