Paul Vieira
Financial Post
OTTAWA — Canada lacks a world-class environmental monitoring system for the oil sands and one should be established under Ottawa’s watch with funding from energy companies, an advisory panel of scientists commissioned by the federal government said Tuesday.
Until there’s a robust scheme to monitor the impact on water from the oilsands, “there will continue to be uncertainty and public distrust both of industry’s environmental performance and government’s oversight,” said Elizabeth Dowdeswell, a former United Nations environmental official and advisory panel chairwoman.
John Baird, the Environment Minister, said his government would move quickly to implement the panel’s findings — although not providing specifics as to how this scheme would be financed and whether industry would bear the cost, as the panel recommended.
The advisory group said designing, implementing and operating a proper monitoring system, replacing a largely industry-led scheme, “will require additional funding,” the panel said. “The user pays principle should be the basis for determining funding responsibility, with industry being responsible for any new funding requirements.”
The present monitoring apparatus suffers from a “lack of leadership and co-ordination,” and the results “lacked scientific vigour,” Ms. Dowdeswell told reporters. As a result, Environment Canada, the federal department, should take a leading role in crafting the new oversight model.
The panel was established in September in response to concerns about industrial pollution in the Athabasca River and connecting waterways. The panel led by Ms. Dowdeswell and consisting of five scientists from the academic sector, had 60 days to report.
Given the short timeframe, it opted to produce an “analytical” report, which dealt more on what’s needed in the future as opposed to what occurred in the past. The focus was solely on the aquatic monitoring system.
Its one overarching recommendation is that there be a “shared national vision” on oil-sands monitoring, with policies and priorities shared by relevant jurisdictions and stakeholders.
The panel said it was optimistic a new monitoring scheme could be developed due to the technology and infrastructure in place, and a willingness it found among oilpatch participants to address concerns about water pollution.
“Stakeholders with whom we spoke were clear in their assertion that they welcomed constructive criticism and would embrace change if it were necessary to ensure a world-class monitoring system is in place,” the report said.
Mr. Baird said Canada had a “solemn responsibility” to ensure the oil sands was developed in a proper way. “We heard the panel’s message loud and clear, and we are ready to act.”
However, he wouldn’t provide specifics as to how industry would pay for this new monitoring system and whether there was a formal agreement with the province of Alberta to work together on a new oversight body.
He said he has spoken with his Alberta colleague, Rob Renner, about working together on building a new system, but later told reporters there was no formal agreement with the province. Mr. Renner said he wanted to make it clear the province is committed to world-class monitoring before the federal report came out.
Mr. Baird has directed senior federal officials to work with their Alberta colleagues to design a water monitoring system within 90 days. At that point, Ottawa will consult with a group of independent scientists to ensure the proposed design is appropriate, and then move to the implementation stage.
However, on Monday, Mr. Renner announced the Alberta government would beef up its oilsands environmental monitoring system under the guidance of a new panel, and industry will be expected to pay the “lion’s share” of recommended improvements.
Environmental Defence, a lobby group, urged Ottawa, on the heels of this panel report, to bypass Alberta and begin regulating water quality in the oilsands.
“The Alberta government is the [oilsands] most shameless cheerleader and, therefore, unfit to monitor and regulate the industry,” said Matt Price, campaigns director with Toronto-based Environmental Defence. “Ottawa must … establish its own water pollution monitoring in the oilsands.”
The Pembina Institute, a Calgary think-tank focused on energy and environmental policy, said the federal and provincial government should co-operate.
“No politician or corporate executive can claim they are protecting the environment while developing this resource if we don’t even have adequate monitoring and oversight in place,” said Nathan Lemphers, policy analyst at Pembina. “It is another case of overpromising and underdelivering to Canadians and to our customers.”
Mr. Baird was also not specific about how oilpatch operators would ultimately pay for this beefed up monitoring system. “The panel has made a recommendation and I will take that back to my cabinet colleagues,” he said at a media conference. “We will tackle that question when we come to it.
“Obviously, in accepting the findings of the report, we acknowledge that we have to up our game, and industry has to do the same,” Mr. Baird added. “And if there are costs, we will find a way to make it happen.”
The federal Conservatives won the 2008 election in large part by denouncing the Liberal Party’s environmental program, and arguing it would lead to a carbon tax that Conservatives vehemently opposed.
Former environment minister Jim Prentice said at the time of the panel’s launch that the government was “determined to develop Canada’s oil sands in a manner that it sustainable and environmentally-sensitive. This independent review by some of Canada’s most respected scientists is a critical step in ensuring that environmental issues are balanced with economic considerations.”