Rather than base ideas about the impact of oil sands production on urban myth, which often happens, try science-based environmental monitoring conducted over many years. The boat was part of a fleet used for the original 1970s project
By Peter McKenzie-Brown
Advertised months in advance as a hard times budget designed to inflict pain on every ministry, Alberta’s 2013 budget was not kind to the environment. The environment department saw direct cuts of $22 million, which will reduce spending in the coming year to $517 million. Also gone from the province’s immediate plans was AOSTRA 2 – what would have been a 20-year, $3 billion contribution toward industry-led environmental research.
At the time, Environment and Sustainable Resource Development Minister Diana McQueen said, “If you look at environmental monitoring or you look at air-land-biodiversity – all of the work we are doing there – we are able to maintain all of that.” Really? According to Dr. Ron Wallace, the province’s stated intention to “build the most comprehensive environmental monitoring program in Canada with the establishment of a new arm’s-length environmental monitoring agency” has been slowed down by unnecessary political cat-fights, some of which date back to the 1970s.
Wallace was deeply involved in environmental monitoring in Alberta in the 1970s and served as co-chair of the Alberta Environmental Monitoring Program Panel, which issued its report in 2010. He was also chair of the Alberta Environmental Monitoring Working Group, which proposed that the province create an arms-length agency “built on credible science, research and data collection….The new science-based agency will begin work in the oil sands region and will focus on what is monitored, how it’s monitored and where it’s monitored. This will include integrated and coordinated monitoring of land, air, water and biodiversity.”
Wallace grumbles that the federal government unilaterally decided to monitor water systems in the lower Athabasca shortly after the monitoring panel released its report, after having unilaterally pulled out of signed agreements in 1979 in preparation for launching the National Energy Program. However, believes the province and the federal government are close to signing a deal on monitoring. he is skeptical whether the new research will measure up to that conducted in the years leading up to the National Energy Program. Called the Alberta Oil Sands Environmental Research Program (AOSERP), the massive volumes of primary research for that program are available online.
With recommendations related to governance, data management, funding, scientific oversight, implementation and collaboration, the Alberta Environmental Monitoring panel concluded that governments and industry need to devise new and better-integrated management systems. Its key recommendations included the creation of an Alberta Environmental Monitoring Commission – a “super-board” that would distance itself from government, regulators and those being regulated by taking the form of a corporation.
The Environment Ministry assigned the task of setting up that commission to Ernie Hui, who recently gave a well-attended public presentation on these issues in Calgary. When Hui’s agency is formally in operation, it will be responsible for monitoring the cumulative impact of activity rather than small, single disturbances. The province’s Lower Athabasca Regional Plan (LARP), “from an economic and environmental perspective, sets limits (in respect to the oilsands) within that region,” according to Hui. “It requires actions, ranging from easing off certain activities to ceasing the activity if certain environmental limits are reached.”
Hui says “there are people who really believe that the development of the oilsands goes unchecked. Let me be very clear: from the government perspective, we have a very stringent regulatory framework in place. There is no shortage of information, there’s no shortage of regulation. People in the industry do not like talking to us sometimes, because we insist on the implementation of these regulations.” He’s on a roll as he starts listing realities with respect to water, air, land and habitat.
· Water: From a policy perspective, the government has a zero discharge regulation process-affected waters; you can’t discharge anything from an oilsands plant into a lake or river. Indeed, he calls it “the most heavily regulated region in Alberta.” Tailings ponds are one of the ways the province has eliminated discharges, and he calls them one of the industry’s “iconic images. That’s what people think about when they think about the oilsands.” From the government’s perspective, he says, “we need to implement a zero growth policy in terms of tailings ponds. We are certainly moving in that direction.”
· Air: There is a carbon price in Alberta for large-scale GHG emitters – most of them oilsands facilities. The price is $15 per ton, which is invested in clean energy projects. “From a climate change perspective, we’ve always seen $15 per ton as the starting point. This is phase 1 of our climate change policy.”
· Land: The reclamation of land is a big issue in that part of the province. The only point I would make is that reclamation is an active requirement for developers in that region. You can’t just reclaim things after 30 years: you have to be continually reclaiming land from mature oilsands development. Government is directing that reclamation be done quickly, if that’s possible.
· Habitat and biodiversity: In terms of intact species in the region, he says the Biodiversity Research Institute has given the oilsands areas a rating of 94%, “so we’re in good shape as far as that is concerned. We will have a biodiversity management framework in place by the end of 2013.”
“All this sounds good, Ernie,” he says, and then asks rhetorically, “So what’s the problem?” His answer: “For people outside the province, there are those images of mining pits, and talk about dirty oil, especially among people who want to get rid of carbon-based fuels.” That, he says, is eroding the social license for developing the oilsands. Ron Wallace takes the argument a bit further: “Alberta has more professional engineers and PhDs [in scientific disciplines] than any other jurisdiction in the world. And people call us red-necks?!”
Removing the Stigma
In Hui’s view, there are three reasons the oil sands are getting such a bad rap. One is that “the truth doesn’t matter”; many people put out different versions of the truth, creating “a confusion of information.” In addition, social media often make scientifically phony ideas stick in people’s minds. For example, the famous photo of the dead fish with “two mouths” on the banks of the Athabasca: the fish was indeed dead, but the “second mouth” was its decaying lower jaw. That said, Ron Wallace notes that a small number of fish with lesions on their bodies have recently been pulled out of the river – something that didn’t happen when AOSERP was under way. “This illustrates the importance of baseline research.”
According to Hui, the oilsands are so discredited because government is not seen as a credible source of information. People just “don’t think government information is believable.” That’s why the province decided to eliminate the stigma associated with government information. “As part of that game-changer, we need to create a public, arm’s-length agency to monitor the environment throughout the Alberta. It would begin in the oilsands area, but would eventually affect environmental monitoring across the province.” The reason this is necessary is that the current system is uncoordinated – one that creates “islands of knowledge where different people in government have different kinds of information, but can’t really share it with other people even in government.”
Hui stresses that the oilsands can “fill the global energy supply gap. It’s not only an economic opportunity for Alberta; it’s an opportunity for Canada.” Once again, he’s on a roll. “Technology development created that opportunity, but as a global leader, Alberta must act through policies and regulatory approaches that really achieve responsible oilsands development. Monitoring of the environment and knowledge of the state of the environment must be foundational and link to policy and regulatory decisions.”
Back to the Budget
According to Hui, the province is moving toward a new system that will combine the best of all worlds. Besides being science-based, it will be open and transparent. “We will fully create the new agency within the next year,” he says, and to illustrate what it can do, he mentions the joint Edmonton/Ottawa water monitoring system which his agency now operates. “The big take away here is that we are committed to sampling more sites, sampling more often and sampling using methods that are science-based. We are also committed to making this information available in an open and transparent way.”
So there you have it. According to the industry’s top environmental monitor, creating an agency that is distant from government, includes more inclusive scientific information and is more accessible to concerned environmentalists, many of the concerns expressed by oilsands critics will be allayed.
But how can you create such a thing after the premier’s hard-times budget? In Hui’s case, instead of going to the province with a hand out, he went to a more likely source of revenue. For the lower Athabasca region, Hui says the joint oilsands monitoring plan will cost about $50 million per year – money that will come from the industry itself.