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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

Helen Ingram, a water expert from the , quit over concerns about how fairly the panel would operate. She told media at the time that she was concerned with the lack of aboriginal representation on the panel, and worried about how the panel's confidentiality rules would affect its ability to consult outside experts.

She did not respond to email requests for comment.

Widespread Support for Enhanced Monitoring

Although it's still up to the panel to determine whether improvements need to be made, recognition that something is wrong with aquatics monitoring is now widespread. Government, oil sands industry and environmentalists all seem to want a new monitoring system that performs better and reassures the public that development is being done responsibly.

"In a very concentrated time frame in late 2010, three independent reports — the federal environment commissioner, the Royal Society of Canada, and the federal advisory panel — all concluded there is a need for much greater oversight of oil sands environmental impacts on water," said Grant.

In January, RAMP released of its activities confirming what everyone feared: The program is not sufficient to detect changes brought about by industry.

The report said that RAMP met only one of nine of its objectives.

Gerry Angevine, senior economist at the Center for Energy Studies, said that industry has to make it clear that it's on track to solve all the major problems.

The Fraser Institute is a Canadian think tank that studies how government policy affects market forces.

"It's taken industry a while, and I think now they've got the message and they're working with government to make technological improvements and improvements in practice that will reduce some of the environmental problems going forward," he said.

"But they need to tell the world what they are doing, and what the result will be in terms of all the remediation."

Some observers suggest that ending the uncertainty about environmental transparency would help Alberta and the industry increase the marketability of oil sands crude beyond North America. In 2009, more than 70 percent of Canadian oil sands was exported to the U.S., according to figures from , the Massachusetts research firm.

Industry: Monitoring Must Be 'Scientifically Based'

The (CAPP) says improving aquatic monitoring is top priority right now.

"We're looking at the confidence the public needs to have in order to have this resource developed in an environmentally responsible manner," Greg Stringham, CAPP's vice-president of oil sands and markets, told SolveClimate News. "It must be monitored, it must be transparent for the public, and it needs to be scientifically based."

Aside from aquatics monitoring, Stringham said that other areas of environmental monitoring are already performing at world-class standards and will provide a model for the new aquatics monitor.

The monitors air quality in the region, and they are a multi-stakeholder group that includes government, industry and environmental groups, said Stringham.

"The data that they collect from about 15 different remote sites is all available on the internet, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to everyone," he said. "The transparency and scientific basis that went into that has been very good at providing confidence to people in the region and around the world."

"This has been a very successful model that I believe the water monitoring panels looking at this will follow," he said.

While CAPP and Pembina agree on the need for building new transparency, they disagree on what should happen with oil sands development in the meantime.

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