The impending closure of a key multi-stakeholder group that provides advice to Alberta and the federal government on the environmental effects of the oilsands was unexpectedly delayed by an injection of money from oil companies.

The funds come at a time when the future – and the purpose – of the organization, which involves the participation of aboriginal, industry, government and environmental groups, is increasingly uncertain. 

The Edmonton Journal reports that the 12-year-old Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA) was to be shut down on January 1, which would have resulted in layoffs, eviction from their offices, and the termination of contracts with scientists working on issues ranging from speedier land reclamation in the oilsands to the improvement of water quality.

However, oil company stakeholders provided $400,000 to keep the organization funded for a little while longer.

"It is for the first month of 2014 only," CEMA spokesman Corey Hobbs told Fort McMurray Today.

CEMA's uncertain future depends on Alberta's newly appointed Environment Minister Robin Campbell, who can resist pressure from the energy industry to have the organization shut down.

"We are optimistic that Minister Campbell will make a positive decision for the future of CEMA," said Hobbs. "There is no indication from anyone that the province does not support CEMA's research or work in the oilsands."

Managing Impacts

According to Andrew Read, Technical and Policy Analyst with the Pembina Institute, CEMA’s role is to “produce recommendations and provide management frameworks” regarding the cumulative impacts of the oilsands. The group consists of more than 50 members ranging from First Nations and Metis groups, environmental advocacy organizations and industry.

CEMA’s recommendations are based on the monitoring work of other environmental agencies.

According to Read, environmental monitoring agencies and CEMA provide complementary work: “monitoring agencies watch what’s happening in the environment and CEMA develops plans on how we can manage the resultant effects of industry to maintain environmental quality.”

The Pembina Institute withdrew from CEMA in 2008 citing numerous shortcomings with the multi-stakeholder framework, including a continued failure to adequately address environmental concerns.

CEMA has been struggling since 2012, when the Oil Sands Developers Group cut the organization's 2013 budget to $2.5 million for the first six months, down from $5 million the previous year. Then-environment minister Diana McQueen restored the group's funding and ordered a review of its future.

The province’s review, submitted in August 2013, showed industry wanted CEMA shut down. Renewed funding for the organization was refused. In September, industry members called for CEMA to be disbanded and its policy development job shifted to an industry-only group.

"We're very close to losing CEMA," said CEMA executive director Glen Semenchuck. "We've been waiting for five months for the minister to respond. Is CEMA going to survive? I don't know."

An Industry Imbalance?

Helene Walsh, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society representative to CEMA, says the cuts in industry funding are the result of an increase in non-industry stakeholder input.

“CEMA was largely industry dominated until the organization was restructured a few years ago with the four different chambers [aboriginal, environmental, industry and government] given equal voting power. Soon after that industry started reducing their funding and now they want CEMA to stop its work,” she said.

With CEMA shuttered, it would be difficult to know how non-industry groups, like First Nations, could contribute to cumulative impacts management, says Read.

“Without CEMA, there is a significant vacuum of expertise in the management of cumulative effects in Alberta that balances the needs of all of the stakeholders in the oilsands region. If it were to cease to exist, there would be a significant need for increased government and industry engagement with stakeholders to identify and address the various cumulative effects resulting from oilsands development.”

CEMA was founded in 2001 by former Premier Ralph Klein with the mandate of addressing the oil industry's environmental footprint. It is the only scientific agency that does government policy work by engaging all local stakeholders for consensus decisions.

Moving Ahead, But in the Wrong Direction

Alberta recently established the Alberta Environmental Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting Agency (AEMERA) intended to harmonize and ensure the credibility of environmental monitoring across the province.

Read said the Pembina Institute is “watching the establishment of AEMERA carefully as it will dictate the credibility of environmental information that is reported by the agency.”

“We are concerned about the substantial powers being granted to the AEMERA board which is appointed by the government and does not require equal or fair representation of all stakeholders. Ultimately without fair and equal representation on the board, AEMERA may suffer from the same credibility issues as past agencies have,” Read said.

In the last year, CEMA released a detailed guidance document on end-pit lakes, and hopes to release a wetland reclamation policy guide and a framework to help industry and government understand Aboriginal traditional knowledge, in 2014.

With no budget for 2014, scientific projects are currently frozen.

Alberta also faces the possible closure of the Wood Buffalo Environmental Agency (WBEA), which monitors air pollution in the oilsands area and is currently running on emergency funds.

“If CEMA were strengthened and aboriginal and environmental groups were truly able to influence the development of the tar sands there would be hope for positive change and improved management that could improve the prospects for healthy water, air, land, wildlife, people and communities,” says Walsh, who also works with Keepers of the Athabasca.

“Closure of CEMA is a step in the wrong direction.”

Image Credit: Kris Krug

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