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After Years of Resisting, Alberta Admits Need for Strict Oil Sands Monitoring

Government and oil sands industry finally agree with environmentalists on need to rigorously measure the full impact of oil sands development

By Mathew Klie-Cribb

Feb 25, 2011
Syncrude's Mildred Lake plant

FT. MCMURRAY, ALBERTA—For years, Alberta's government has been under fire for weak monitoring of oil sands development on rivers and lakes. Now it's finally answering its critics, by commissioning a special review that aims to reassure the world that its booming industry is being developed with the utmost scrutiny.

Over the next several months, a panel of experts from health, science, regulatory and public administration backgrounds will look at how the government can rebuild a state-of-the-art monitoring system and regain the public trust, which has eroded not only in Canada, but globally.

In early February, the new group met for the first time to review current monitoring capacity, starting with "aquatics," the most criticized area, and branching out to air quality and wider environmental impacts.

The panel has until June 2011 to report back.

"Independent experts will be asked to inform the province on the best way to set-up, operate, and govern a world-class monitoring system," said Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner when he announced that the panel would be created in December 2010.

It was an admission, wrested under enormous pressure, that oversight of the oil sands — an industry that has grown from roughly 350,000 barrels per day in 1990 to about 1.35 million in 2009 — is inadequate.

"I guess the bottom line, really, is we've got to assure the world that the oil sands are being developed under the closest scrutiny and oversight," spokesperson Trevor Gemmell told SolveClimate News.

Criticism of 'RAMP' Triggers Inquiry

The government only took action to quell the growing uproar after years of critiques against one monitoring program in particular, the (RAMP).

Criticism dates back to 2004, when RAMP released its that showed it was statistically biased and had inconsistent monitoring sites, said Jennifer Grant, oil sands program director at the , a Canadian think tank that aims to advance green energy development.

"Since then, there's been increased public scrutiny on the resource in terms of how it's being mismanaged, and how the ability to put an environmental management system in place has not kept pace with the scale of development," Grant told SolveClimate News.

RAMP is the primary group that monitors the aquatic environment surrounding the oil sands, but RAMP is funded by industry, and the majority of its members are industry players, said Grant.

"It's not a functional, multi-stakeholder group," she said. "It doesn't have representation from all the necessary groups that should be at the table."

Despite this, public scrutiny of the program did not come to light until 2009, when a world-renowned scientist brought forward findings that were very different than RAMP's.

Schindler Research Reveals RAMP's Failings

David Schindler, a biologist at the University of Alberta, showed that toxins were being released by the oil sands into water supplies, in a study he released in the journal, "."

Because Schindler went to the media with his findings — and because of his prominent international reputation — the Alberta government was eventually forced to address the differences between his research and RAMP's, said Grant.

"But there really has been a lack of concern and a lack of regard from the provincial government to deal with these concerns, and again, they defended RAMP's findings until last fall when they decided to actually issue a panel to compare why RAMP's findings were different from Dr. Schindler's," she said.

The panel got off to a rough start when one member quit Feb. 2 just before the first meeting was scheduled to take place.

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