Alberta plans to create new oilsands monitoring agency

By Mariam Ibrahim, Edmonton Journal October 28, 2013

EDMONTON – The Alberta government introduced on Monday legislation to create a new arm’s-length environmental monitoring agency focused on the oilsands, but critics say the law leaves too many questions unanswered.

The Protecting Alberta’s Environment Act, tabled in the legislature Monday, will create the new agency more than two years after the province first said it planned to establish a new system to monitor the impact of the oilsands on the environment.

The Alberta Environmental Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting Agency (AEMERA) will initially focus on the northern Alberta oilsands and will be tasked with collecting data on water, air, land and biodiversity. Once up and running in early 2014, it will be responsible for administering the Joint Oilsands Monitoring Plan, a federal and provincial government initiative that monitors air, water and forests in the northeast until the agreement expires in 2015.

Speaking to reporters following a lunchtime speech Monday to the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce, Redford said the agency’s work will be “incredibly impactful.

“It’s the only place in North America where this has ever been done, where there will be integrated monitoring,” Redford said. “People are going to be able to go on websites when this is done, look at a point on a map and see exactly what’s going on at that point in time — not just in northern Alberta, but eventually through all of Alberta.”

Under the legislation, the agency’s purpose is to “obtain credible and relevant scientific data … regarding the condition of the environment in Alberta” and to ensure any data are publicly reported. The bill doesn’t outline how often the data will be reported, nor does it say how it will be released.

The agency must also appoint a science advisory panel of up to eight members. The panel would be required to periodically review the scientific basis of the agency’s monitoring activities, the legislation says.

Liberal environment critic Laurie Blakeman criticized the bill for being light on details, including how often the data are made public. She noted the bill includes no requirements that the advisory panel’s members have any science-related credentials.

Alberta NDP MLA Rachel Notley also raised concerns over the lack of a clear timeline in the new bill.

“The government should not be allowed to use the monitoring agency as a means of delaying action on preventing and eliminating pollution,” she said. “If the agency takes a long time to get set up and start collecting its data, every time anyone raises a concern that something is unhealthy or unsafe, they’ll be told to wait until the data are collected. So we need to make sure the timelines around this agency are clear and concise.”

Jennifer Grant, oilsands program director for the Pembina Institute, said the monitoring agency’s effectiveness won’t truly be known until the government answers some major questions.

She said the agency must have a long-term, stable funding mechanism and must leave absolutely no question in people’s minds that it is independent of government.

“Will it engage sufficiently First Nations and their expertise on traditional knowledge, and will it have independent scientific experts?” Grant asked. “Will that information be made public in a timely manner and will that information be used to inform decisions?”

She said failure to meet any of these standards could stymie hopes of improving Alberta’s international credibility on environmental protection.

A spokeswoman for Alberta Environment said the agency will receive funding from both government and industry, via the Joint-Oilsands Monitoring Plan. It’s not clear how the new monitoring agency would be funded in the long-term.

With files from Keith Gerein

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