June/July 2013

A look into the portal

New oil sands environmental monitoring site goes live

By Virginia Heffernan

In an effort to boost the transparency of environmental monitoring in the oil sands, the Alberta and federal governments have set up an online portal where the general public can access environmental data from the area.

“With this portal, our respective governments are actively encouraging informed discussions and analysis on the impacts of oil sands development,” said Peter Kent, Canada’s environment minister, when the service went live in April.

The portal complements the existing Alberta Oil Sands Information Portal run by the provincial government. It provides more comprehensive monitoring information, with greater frequency, over an area that extends into the Northwest Territories and Saskatchewan. Results of air, water, land and biodiversity testing in the Athabasca Basin, where oil sands extraction has been ongoing for years, are included in the datasets. The water data, for instance, include concentrations of contaminants such as heavy metals and ammonia in rivers and lakes, while air quality measurements include levels of ozone, polycyclic aromatic compounds (PACs) and mercury.

The portal is the most recent initiative of the Joint Canada-Alberta Implementation Plan for Oil Sands Monitoring, launched in February 2012. That plan was intended as a response to criticism that existing monitoring programs such as the Regional Aquatics Monitoring program (RAMP) were inadequate. A panel of experts commissioned by Environment Canada concluded in 2010 that many of the monitoring programs in place were unable to distinguish, with any reasonable statistical confidence, the impact oil sands extraction has on the environment.

RAMP in particular was singled out for poor leadership, failing to communicate with scientists and the public, and lacking data transparency. Launched in 1997, the water monitoring program is fully funded by industry but also includes stakeholders from all levels of government and First Nations groups.

A key aspect of the new monitoring portal is that air, water, wildlife and land monitoring results will be linked together, so emissions and habitat disturbance can be related to acute and long-term effects on ecosystems and human health. Monitoring multiple factors at close proximity will show how water quality, for instance, affects biodiversity.

Under the implementation plan, monitoring will be co-led by representatives of Environment Canada and Alberta Environment and Water, rather than an independent agency. But this approach has raised concerns about the program’s credibility.

“The oil sands monitoring system will only be credible if it is independently governed – arms length from any industry or government interests,” said Jennifer Grant, oil sands program director for Canada’s Pembina Institute. She considers independent governance and regular audits key for restoring trust in a monitoring system that has struggled for years with sampling deficiencies, poor understanding of baseline conditions, and inadequate analysis.

Instead, the partnership will integrate the current monitoring activities of several independent groups into one, government-led effort. To quell transparency concerns, the program will publish an annual report and undergo an external peer review process after year three, and at five-year intervals thereafter.

Grant also points out that monitoring is meaningless unless it is coupled with action. “As an example, Alberta monitored the steady decline towards extinction of caribou in the oil sands for 20 years and still failed to act to protect their habitat,” she said. And since it will be another two years before the joint monitoring program is fully operational, she recommends the government put a halt to new projects in the oil sands until 2015.

The federal and Alberta governments, alongside industry, already support monitoring in the area, and the extra $50 million in annual funding needed to implement the new program will be covered by industry. Invoices will be sent directly to individual companies instead of being channelled through the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP).

Even though monitoring data is accessible to the public through a variety of other means, the portal is a positive step toward making environmental information more easily and instantly available, said Tony McCallum, a spokesman for CAPP. He says oil companies are generally supportive of the new initiative and the increased transparency and disclosure it will provide.

Meanwhile, Alberta is tabling a new law – Bill 21 – that would allow the province to introduce other monitoring programs both inside and outside the oil sands. If the bill passes, Alberta will have the power to force oil companies to pay for environmental monitoring beyond the three years agreed to under the joint implementation plan.

The portal can be accessed at: environment.alberta.ca/apps/osip/

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