Tar Sands Monitoring a Mystery One Year In

One year after plans were announced for a new system to monitor the environmental effects of the Alberta tar sands, there is still no sign of any formal data.

In February of 2012, the federal government, in partnership with the government of Alberta, announced plans for a new three-year environmental monitoring system to collect information on the Alberta tar sands. Touted as world-class by environment ministers at both the federal and provincial levels, the three-year plan is meant to track data on water, air, land and wildlife, and provide annual reports for the first three years, followed by a comprehensive peer review in 2015.

“We will make the system highly transparent. We will ensure that the scientific data that is collected from our monitoring and analysis is publicly available with common quality assurances and common practices in place,” Environment Minister Peter Kent said a year ago, at a joint news conference with Alberta Environment Minister Diana McQueen. 

The plans indicated that scientists would release information on an ongoing basis in some cases, and on three and six-month schedules in others. Officials anticipated the first round of information would be released before the end of last year.

The public may not have seen any results from this new endeavour, but multiple independent reports released this year have shown that the tar sands environmental footprint stretches significantly further than previously thought. A joint study between Environment Canada and scientists at Queen’s University discovered elevated levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons—or PAHs, the chemical produced when petroleum is burned—in bodies of water as far as 90 kilometres away from Fort McMurray.

Documents recently obtained by Postmedia indicate that the tailing ponds containing millions of litres of oil sands waste are leaking, contaminating groundwater in the surrounding areas.

The newly-implemented environmental monitoring system is intended to boost both government and industry credibility and combat reports of reckless environmental damage resulting from bitumen extraction and processing.

The Harper government has recently been the target of international scrutiny over highly restrictive communications policies for federal scientists. The new policies, said to prevent scientists from communicating with the media, have angered the scientific community across the country, prompting prominent organisations to condemn Prime Minister Harper's undemocratic control of information. 

In light of the recent scientific information regarding the environmental impacts of development in the tar sands, environmentalists such as Jennifer Grant, director of programing for the Pembina Institute, believe any new development should be halted until scientists better understand the impacts of existing operations.

The new monitoring plan is priced at $50 million per year – a cost that will eventually be assumed by the oil and gas industry. Government is currently covering costs until an agreement can be reached as to who exactly will be required to pay.

The issue of cost is one of several points of negotiation between the Alberta government and the Harper administration slowing down the process. Other issues involve the reconciling new information with old and deciding on a standardized method to present findings.

Albertans have long been wary of allowing the federal government to control any of their natural resources, and in a move that may have more to do with politicking than environmental protection, the Alberta government is creating a new, arms-length environmental monitoring agency to work alongside the joint federal-provincial initiative.

Scientist Howard Tennant, known for criticizing the Alberta government for allowing the federal government too much involvement in the province's resource management, will head the new agency.

Erin Flegg is a freelance writer and journalist, and her work appears in the Vancouver Observer, Xtra West and This…

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