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Oil-sands oversight body aims to clean tarred image

Alberta is looking to clean up its sullied oil-sands image with the creation of an independent environmental monitoring agency

The province’s government accepted a dozen recommendations proposed by a special committee formed in the wake of a damning water quality study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2010.

In it, the University of Alberta’s David Schindler found toxic pollutants in the Athabasca watershed, which he said could only be associated with oil-sands mines. The work further raised concerns that the substances can accumulate to harmful levels over time.

Following a public outcry, Alberta’s government agreed to carry out a special review. The new body - to be named the Alberta Environmental Monitoring agency - is a key recommendation of the findings, as well as a requirement that it operate free of government control.

“Alberta recognises the status quo is not enough,” environment minister Diana McQueen said at a briefing in Edmonton. “This will be a system like no other in Canada and the world. It needs to be.”

Though it will report to minister of the environment, the new board will be free to release data and results directly to the public. It will initially focus on the oil sands regions, but will eventually grow to handle responsibility for all environmental monitoring in Alberta, including enforcement and compliance of conventional oil and gas operations.

The minister vowed that the new agency will be thorough and transparent, with real power to make changes.

There are hurdles before work can start, however. The agency has no budget, and it is unclear how much industry should contribute. Some say oil companies should pay most of the cost, but others fear oil money will taint the integrity of the group’s research. The panel report proposes a pennies-per-barrel “sustainability” tax on oil-sands production.

It will take at least six months to appoint directors, hire staff and get on with a new scientific programme. Until then, monitoring will continue under existing arrangements with the federal government that both have already acknowledged as deficient and flawed.

But for oil-sands producers, transparency is a small price to pay compared to the substantial business risks. If not, Canada’s goal to become a global oil player will be severely tested, in North America and abroad.

Canada wants to double oil production to 6 million barrels per day (b/d) by 2030. But access to new markets in the US and Asia is threatened for lack of pipelines. Meanwhile, the EU’s Fuel Quality Directive comes up for debate again in 2013, which could see import restrictions slapped on oil-sands crude.

Thus, Alberta must show demonstrable improvement before then, along with a commitment to fact-based science that is beyond political reproach.

For now, all sides seem to have reached a workable consensus, with minor grumblings on cost and structure. The real test will come in three years, when the initial first phase of research is complete. Then it will be up to the government to accept the findings, set new policies and crack down if warranted.

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