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Can Alberta’s Oilsands Monitoring Agency Be Saved?

"Transparent,” “credible, “world-class” — those are just a few of the words that have been deployed to detail the aspirations of the one-year-old organization tasked with monitoring the air, water, land and wildlife in Alberta.

But there are a lot of questions about whether the Alberta Environmental Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting Agency (AEMERA), funded primarily by industry, has lived up to its goal to track the condition of the province’s environment.*

Unlike the Alberta Energy Regulator, which the new NDP government is considering splitting into two agencies to separate its conflicting responsibilities to both promote and policy energy development, AEMERA hasn’t spent much time in the public spotlight — yet.

Last October, Alberta’s auditor general slammed the agency for releasing its 2012-2013 annual report in June 2014, well after when it should have been released. The auditor general also said the report “lacked clarity and key information and contained inaccuracies.”

Many of the agency’s projects were missing several details and the auditor general cautioned such omissions “may jeopardize AEMERA’s ability to monitor the cumulative effects of oil sands development.”

And that’s a pretty big problem. Because if Canada is to feasibly establish a strong environmental record, it’s going to need stringent monitoring in Alberta, especially in the Lower Athabasca region where the bulk of the province’s energy industry operates.

The Birth of A Really Long Acronym: AEMERA

AEMERA was dreamt up in 2011 as a means to coalesce the dozens of monitoring organizations working in the province under one banner, firewalling the result from government and industry to avoid conflicts of interest.

Martin Olszynski, an assistant professor in law at University of Calgary who specializes in environmental law, notes that at the time of the agency’s inception, international pressure was limiting market access for oil.

“When someone went to check on the monitoring system, it turned out it was a mess,” Olsznynski says. “We weren’t getting the data that we needed.”

AEMERA — with the Joint Canada-Alberta Plan for Oil Sands Monitoring serving as the transition agency for the three years prior to its official birth — was crafted to solve that problem.

Yet Bill 31, the piece of legislation that conjured up the arms-length agency in late 2013, faced considerable criticism from the get-go. Opposition parties pleaded for more than a dozen amendments.

Many of the proposed tweaks would have addressed the tight relationship between government and the monitoring agency. Amongst other things, the legislation suggested the environment minister would appoint the board and choose when data was released to the public.

Shaun Fluker, an associate professor of law at the University of Calgary, wrote in a 2014 post that the latter provision “arguably undermines the whole structure and suggests that politics can and will override science and transparency on environmental monitoring and reporting.”

All the proposed amendments were shot down. Lorne Taylor, former environment minister under Ralph Klein and renowned anti-Kyoto Accord activist, was appointed as chair of the board. Little has changed since.

Unlike other agencies, AEMERA doesn’t mandate quotas for groups or interests on the board. As a result, Bigstone Cree elder Mike Beaver is the sole indigenous representative on the agency’s seven-member board.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge, a method of integrating indigenous worldviews into policymaking, was listed as a priority in AEMERA’s founding document — yet the auditor generals’ report noted that just three of 38 of AEMERA’s projects surveyed involved Traditional Ecological Knowledge.

Val Mellesmoen, spokesperson for AEMERA, says the organization is working hard to foster strong relationships with indigenous people. In mid-June, the organization appointed a Traditional Ecological Knowledge panel to focus on such issues.

Insufficient Funding for Mobile Air Monitoring Van

Then there’s the overarching issue of funding. Exactly $50 million was decided upon as the max that industry would contribute per year, a number that features a “conspicuously round nature,” Olszynski says.

In late March, news broke that the Wood Buffalo Environmental Associationhistorically the recipient of the largest amount of money for monitoring — couldn’t afford the $500,000 price tag for a new mobile air monitoring testing van on account of a lack of funding.

Andrew Read, policy analyst at the Pembina Institute, says there’s no public information available as to why $50 million was chosen as the funding cap; he has submitted multiple requests to the federal government (which coordinated the interim monitoring framework prior to AEMERA’s takeover), but hasn’t received any clarification.

Mellesmoen, the agency’s spokesperson, says it was a “gentlemen’s agreement” with the number determined by “an initial estimate that was based on industry providing an overview of what they felt they were currently spending as individual companies.”

Mellesmoen — who previously served as Taylor’s spokesperson when he was an MLA and minister — says there are questions within the agency about the reasoning for the cap.

“Even that funding model needs to be maybe looked at in the long run,” she says.

New NDP Government Could Amend Bill 31

Olszynski says the newly elected NDP could amend Bill 31 to deal with such issues. Prior to being elected as premier, Rachel Notley was an outspoken critic of the monitoring agency, at one point asserting the organization was “nowhere near ready to assume responsibility for the [Lower Athabasca] region.”

The NDP’s platform also pledged to “strengthen environmental standards, inspection, monitoring and enforcement to protect Alberta’s water, land and air.”

This week’s decision to revisit the Alberta Energy Regulator’s mandate represents that focus. The press secretary for Minister of Environment Shannon Phillips didn’t respond to multiple requests for an interview on the subject.

International Experts to Evaluate Oilsands Monitoring

An international panel composed of six scientists will evaluate the performance of the new monitoring system. It plans to “evaluate the extent to which the implementation of the Joint Canada-Alberta Oil Sands Monitoring (JOSM) has improved the scientific integrity of environmental monitoring in the oil sands.”

The panel will deliver its report this fall, which will “help determine the next steps on the oilsands monitoring design and implementation.”

Olszynski emphasizes the uniqueness of AEMERA

“It’s an experiment, an innovative one, an important one,” he says.

Yet there’s much more to be done: stable funding must be solidified, the line between cabinet and organization must be clarified and the data must be analyzed and reported on in a way that regular Albertans can understand. AEMERA also has to expand its monitoring province-wide to fulfill its mandate.

“AEMERA needs to step out and demonstrate that they’re acting in the public interest,” Read says. “We want to see a demonstration of AEMERA actively taking and delivering that unbiased information to the government and providing a perspective on the current state of the environment.”

* Clarification Notice: This article originally stated that AEMERA is funded 100 per cent by industry. While AEMERA gets the bulk of its funding from industry, the agency also receives government funding for general operations and monitoring, evaluation and reporting activities in other areas of the province

Image: Kris Krug via Flickr

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James Wilt is a freelance journalist based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He holds a journalism degree from Mount Royal University in…

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