Commissioned by the federal environment minister two months ago, an expert panel was asked if there was proper scientific oversight of the effects of oilsands development in northern Alberta.
“Do we have a world-class monitoring system in place? In short, no,” said Elizabeth Dowdeswell, the panel chair and former executive director of the United Nations Environment Program.
But she said the possibility exists to vastly improve the monitoring of water, land, air quality and wildlife for any impacts caused by the drilling and digging for sandy bitumen that is refined into the liquid gold that has driven the Canadian economy.
Both the provincial government in Edmonton and Ottawa have embraced the findings of the report, which identified a “lack of leadership and cooperation” for the patchwork of efforts to measure environmental degradation caused by the oil sands.
The Alberta government has already set up a panel to direct its plan for a new monitoring system. And in Ottawa, federal environment minister John Baird said he will work with the province to draw up a system to begin to monitor water quality within 90 days. Similar oversight for air quality, soil and biodiversity will follow, he said.
“The actions we take will be guided by science and by facts, not by politics and public relations,” Baird said.
Better monitoring of oil sands impacts could force the government to enact stricter regulations around activities if they are found to have negative effects on the environment, something that many scientists, First Nations and activists have long claimed.
But a report released last week by the Royal Society of Canada makes it clear it could have the opposite effect as well. Some environmental groups have had to estimate their calculations in some cases to claim negative effects from the oil sands, which have led to exaggerated findings.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers referred to this when praising the Dowdeswell report and said it was happy to see better monitoring and transparency in a murky and controversial sector of the economy.
“We’ve been happy to be judged by good science,” said Travis Davies, a spokesperson with the industry coalition.
Jim Prentice, the former federal environment minister, called for the panel after being shown pictures of fish caught downstream from the oilsands with tumors, curved spines and other deformities.
Natives communities living downstream from the developments on the Athabasca River have also complained about elevated cancer rates, but the mass of disconnected efforts by academics, industry and governments have so far failed to establish beyond doubt any detrimental effects from oil sand projects.
“Until these significant shortcomings are addressed there will continue to be debate about the data itself. There will continue to be uncertainty and public distrust both of industry’s environmental performance and government’s oversight,” Dowdeswell warned.
NDP environment critic Linda Duncan praised the panel’s work, but said it was a damning illustration of how Ottawa had shirked its responsibilities.
“The federal government has deserted Alberta for 40 years, left it to the province and the province has downloaded to industry and there’s no scientific oversight. That is the summation of where we are.”
Baird said he first plans to ask his department to work with its Alberta counterpart and the industry to better organize their monitoring efforts.
The report recommends making industry – not governments – pay for any unforeseen expenses. That was the only suggestion that Baird hesitated to endorse.
“We’ll get the facts first and come to that determination second,” he said.