Oil sands monitoring being stepped up under environmental plan

Feds increase number of monitoring sites by 50%.

May 31, 2012   by The Canadian Press

EDMONTON: Alberta’s oilsands are under stricter environmental oversight as the provincial and federal governments move to implement a monitoring plan announced earlier this year.

As recommended in the much-anticipated plan, scientists are looking at more sites, more often and for more contaminants, said Alberta Environment spokesman Mark Cooper.

“Both governments are working hard to ensure we have the most progressive and comprehensive monitoring system in the world,” he said.

In February, federal environment minister Peter Kent joined his provincial counterpart Diana McQueen to announce a radical revamp of how environmental changes created by extensive energy development in northern Alberta would be tracked. The move came after years of criticism from scientists and others that the provincial government was doing a poor job.

Those charges fuelled increasing opposition to the oilsands both in Canada and abroad. That opposition has grown to the point where it is now affecting the province’s attempts to increase its energy exports.

McQueen and Kent outlined a three-year plan that aims to increase the number of monitoring sites by more than 50%. The new approach includes looking for hazardous chemicals ignored under the old plan and extending the geographic reach into Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories.

Ultimately, monitors are also to examine biodiversity, animal toxicity, plant health and habitat disruption.

The plan, estimated to eventually cost about $50 million a year, is underway, said Cooper.

Scientists have added four new water monitoring sites for this field season and will increase inspections at five others. Snow sampling was conducted last winter for the first time.

Airborne hydrocarbons will be evaluated by 17 new monitoring stations.

Environment Canada is also stepping up its activity in the oilsands.

“One of the reasons we announced in February is so we could have it up and running,”  said Adam Sweet, Kent’s press secretary. “All the stuff we were doing before we’re now doing in a more intense version.”

The work is being shared by federal, provincial and independent scientists, Cooper said. It is being funded largely by industry, with some money from the Alberta government to build its scientific capacity.

How monitoring will work and how politically independent it will be is still under discussion. A panel—composed of some of the same members who designed the system—has been asked to recommend the best way to operate.

That panel is to report on June 30. As well, more details on this field season’s activities will be released later this summer, Cooper said.

Officials are also still trying to design a way to make monitoring data available to the public, he said.

Upgraded monitoring comes as debate over the industry’s environmental and economic impact grows increasingly louder.

©The Canadian Press

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