Oilsands environmental agency in danger of folding

By Sheila Pratt, Edmonton Journal December 4, 2013

EDMONTON – A key environmental agency working to clean up the oilsands is within weeks of folding, but board members say they’re still hopeful Environment Minister Diana McQueen will find a way to renew its industry funding.

The Fort McMurray-based agency, which needs about $5 million to $8 million from the energy industry to carry on, does technical reports on issues such as air and water pollution and most of its recommendations are adopted as government policy.

This is the second year the oil industry has balked at funding CEMA, the Cumulative Environmental Management Association.

“There’s been a lot of uncertainty,” said Bill Loutitt of Fort McMurray Métis Local 1935. “But we’re hoping to hear more positive news.”

First Nations would be especially upset if CEMA is disbanded, as it is one of the few places they can sit down with industry and government at the same table to work on environmental issues, he added.

In September, the energy industry called on McQueen to disband CEMA, arguing the agency’s work on issues such as improving tailings ponds at open-pit mines could be done by an industry association.

At the time, McQueen called on the industry to restore its funding. She stressed that CEMA “plays an extremely important role for us,” especially under the province’s new Lower Athabasca land use plan.

But so far, there’s been no word from the minister on whether she has convinced industry to renew the funding.

With their budget about to run out Dec. 31, some CEMA board members said after a Wednesday meeting they need a decision soon, as millions of dollars worth of environmental projects are on hold.

“We know the minister is committed to the organization and we hope that is backed up with appropriate funding,” said Dan Stuckless, manager of environment and regulatory issues for Fort McKay First Nation.

The oil industry argued that a new association of oil companies called COSIA, the Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, could take over the scientific and technical work that CEMA does for government. Or CEMA’s work could be taken over by the three-year Joint Oilsands Monitoring program (JOSM).

But COSIA is very different as it involves only the energy industry while CEMA brings all parties — First Nations, environmentalists and governments — to the discussions of how to clean up the oilsands, said Stuckless.

“We work for solutions that are mutually agreeable solutions to all parties,” he said. CEMA’s reports are all released to the public.

Also CEMA, set up in 2001, has developed unique expertise in looking at the overall environmental impact that grows with each new oilsands project in the region.

Industry may be reluctant to continue funding because CEMA decisions don’t always go their way, Loutitt said.

“But we discuss everything in detail, we all have equal voice at the table and it’s one of the few places that happens,” he said.

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