After Years of Resisting, Alberta Admits Need for Strict Oil Sands Monitoring

Government and oil sands industry finally agree with environmentalists on need to rigorously measure the full impact of oil sands development

Syncrude's Mildred Lake plant
Syncrude's Mildred Lake plant

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FT. MCMURRAY, ALBERTA—For years, Alberta’s government has been under fire for weak monitoring of oil sands development on rivers and lakes. Now it’s finally answering its critics, by commissioning a special review that aims to reassure the world that its booming industry is being developed with the utmost scrutiny.

Over the next several months, a panel of experts from health, science, regulatory and public administration backgrounds will look at how the government can rebuild a state-of-the-art monitoring system and regain the public trust, which has eroded not only in Canada, but globally.

In early February, the new group met for the first time to review current monitoring capacity, starting with “aquatics,” the most criticized area, and branching out to air quality and wider environmental impacts.

The panel has until June 2011 to report back.

“Independent experts will be asked to inform the province on the best way to set-up, operate, and govern a world-class monitoring system,” said Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner when he announced that the panel would be created in December 2010.

It was an admission, wrested under enormous pressure, that oversight of the oil sands — an industry that has grown from roughly 350,000 barrels per day in 1990 to about 1.35 million in 2009 — is inadequate.

“I guess the bottom line, really, is we’ve got to assure the world that the oil sands are being developed under the closest scrutiny and oversight,” spokesperson Trevor Gemmell told SolveClimate News.

Criticism of ‘RAMP’ Triggers Inquiry

The government only took action to quell the growing uproar after years of critiques against one monitoring program in particular, the Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP).

Criticism dates back to 2004, when RAMP released its first independent peer review that showed it was statistically biased and had inconsistent monitoring sites, said Jennifer Grant, oil sands program director at the Pembina Institute, a Canadian think tank that aims to advance green energy development.

“Since then, there’s been increased public scrutiny on the resource in terms of how it’s being mismanaged, and how the ability to put an environmental management system in place has not kept pace with the scale of development,” Grant told SolveClimate News.

RAMP is the primary group that monitors the aquatic environment surrounding the oil sands, but RAMP is funded by industry, and the majority of its members are industry players, said Grant.

“It’s not a functional, multi-stakeholder group,” she said. “It doesn’t have representation from all the necessary groups that should be at the table.”

Despite this, public scrutiny of the program did not come to light until 2009, when a world-renowned scientist brought forward findings that were very different than RAMP’s.

Schindler Research Reveals RAMP’s Failings

David Schindler, a biologist at the University of Alberta, showed that toxins were being released by the oil sands into water supplies, in a study he released in the journal, “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.

Because Schindler went to the media with his findings — and because of his prominent international reputation — the Alberta government was eventually forced to address the differences between his research and RAMP’s, said Grant.

“But there really has been a lack of concern and a lack of regard from the provincial government to deal with these concerns, and again, they defended RAMP’s findings until last fall when they decided to actually issue a panel to compare why RAMP’s findings were different from Dr. Schindler’s,” she said.

The panel got off to a rough start when one member quit Feb. 2 just before the first meeting was scheduled to take place.

Helen Ingram, a water expert from the University of California Irvine, quit over concerns about how fairly the panel would operate. She told media at the time that she was concerned with the lack of aboriginal representation on the panel, and worried about how the panel’s confidentiality rules would affect its ability to consult outside experts.

She did not respond to email requests for comment.

Widespread Support for Enhanced Monitoring

Although it’s still up to the panel to determine whether improvements need to be made, recognition that something is wrong with aquatics monitoring is now widespread. Government, oil sands industry and environmentalists all seem to want a new monitoring system that performs better and reassures the public that development is being done responsibly.

“In a very concentrated time frame in late 2010, three independent reports — the federal environment commissioner, the Royal Society of Canada, and the federal advisory panel — all concluded there is a need for much greater oversight of oil sands environmental impacts on water,” said Grant.

In January, RAMP released another independent review of its activities confirming what everyone feared: The program is not sufficient to detect changes brought about by industry.

The report said that RAMP met only one of nine of its objectives.

Gerry Angevine, senior economist at the Fraser Institute’s Center for Energy Studies, said that industry has to make it clear that it’s on track to solve all the major problems.

The Fraser Institute is a Canadian think tank that studies how government policy affects market forces.

“It’s taken industry a while, and I think now they’ve got the message and they’re working with government to make technological improvements and improvements in practice that will reduce some of the environmental problems going forward,” he said.

“But they need to tell the world what they are doing, and what the result will be in terms of all the remediation.”

Some observers suggest that ending the uncertainty about environmental transparency would help Alberta and the industry increase the marketability of oil sands crude beyond North America. In 2009, more than 70 percent of Canadian oil sands was exported to the U.S., according to figures from IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates, the Massachusetts research firm.

Industry: Monitoring Must Be ‘Scientifically Based’

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) says improving aquatic monitoring is top priority right now.

“We’re looking at the confidence the public needs to have in order to have this resource developed in an environmentally responsible manner,” Greg Stringham, CAPP’s vice-president of oil sands and markets, told SolveClimate News. “It must be monitored, it must be transparent for the public, and it needs to be scientifically based.”

Aside from aquatics monitoring, Stringham said that other areas of environmental monitoring are already performing at world-class standards and will provide a model for the new aquatics monitor.

The Wood Buffalo Environmental Association monitors air quality in the region, and they are a multi-stakeholder group that includes government, industry and environmental groups, said Stringham.

“The data that they collect from about 15 different remote sites is all available on the internet, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to everyone,” he said. “The transparency and scientific basis that went into that has been very good at providing confidence to people in the region and around the world.”

“This has been a very successful model that I believe the water monitoring panels looking at this will follow,” he said.

While CAPP and Pembina agree on the need for building new transparency, they disagree on what should happen with oil sands development in the meantime.

Grant said she hopes all oil sands development will be put on hold.

“It would be very challenging to make decisions in the public interest based on this program that has apparently been producing findings that aren’t credible or accepted by scientists,” she said.

Temporary Oil Sands Halt Unlikely

However, in late January a federal-provincial review panel conditionally approved another open-pit mine in the oil sands — The Joslyn North mine — operated by French company Total SA.

Grant said the global energy demand should not trump doing what is right for the environment.

“If Canada and the U.S. are serious about taking action on climate change, then we are going to be looking to other sources of energy that don’t have such a heavy carbon footprint,” she said. “And therefore we won’t be developing at such a pace that we have such large concerns for water.”

But Stringham said the oil sands are not much worse than some other U.S. oil sources, and technological advancements are pointing towards a future that will have an even smaller carbon foot print.