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Friday, March 25, 2011

Oil Sands Environmental Monitoring is a Priority for Albertans

We Albertans own the oil sands.  They are becoming increasingly concerned about how this vital resource is being developed in our name.  There is a very clear set of priorities to guide and drive the development of the oil sands from the values research Cambridge Strategies has done in conjunction with the U of A based Oil Sand Research and Information Network.  

Environmental monitoring of oil sands development is one of the top three most important value concerns of Albertans.  Reclamation and habitat protection are the others followed by greenhouse gas emissions and water usage.

It is encouraging to see the federal and Alberta government getting together to address this concern.  The disgraced provincial water monitoring approach of oil sands has been abandoned.  Now we see the federal government pushing ahead with the announcement of a $20million Lower Athabasca Water Quality Monitoring Program.

The Alberta government is now effectively engaged in this ecological monitoring responsibility now as well and in collaboration with the federal government and industry.   Environment Minister Rob Renner acknowledges that the environment is a shared constitutional responsibility with the federal government saying some monitoring will be fed lead and others will be a major Alberta responsibility.

This is very encouraging but we need this work to be evidence based done by independent expert scientists.  We must keep all politicians in all orders of government out of the processes and reporting.  We need open access to the data and peer reviewed reporting of findings as well as full disclosure of the implications of findings and recommendations that come out of the water monitoring.

We can't trust the politicians not to interfere with this work for political purposes.  We also can't trust industry to self monitor or to control the environmental monitoring agenda. This water monitoring has to be done collaboratively between governments and in conjunction with industry.  That seems to be the case now and I am most encouraged by how this is coming together between the two orders of government and the involvement of industry.

Travis Davies of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers speaking on behalf of the industry hits a few key points going forward saying: "We are happy to be judged by good science.  We think it's a very important piece of where we want to go, which is long-term, responsible development."  (emphasis added)  CAPP goes even  further to properly frame the water monitoring initiative saying "We're certainly willing to pay our share, provided that governments collaborate and that the final product is effective, efficient and avoids duplication." (emphasis added again).

I am not a big fan of those who think government should be run more like a business.  They are very different animals and government is more often more complex than most businesses.  That said, I add the emphasis in the CAPP quotes because they underscore some necessary lessons governments can learn from the oil sands business. I applaud the CAPP emphasis on science based, long-term approach to responsible development done with an collaborative, effective, efficient approach that avoids duplication by governments.  I also add a caution to avoid gaps in the monitoring approach too.  That was a major problem with the former discredited Alberta water monitoring work.

Albertans should be pleased with this new approach to ecological monitoring by governments and industry.  We overwhelming believe (89%) that the oil sands are important to our future prosperity.  We don't trust federal or provincial politicians to manage this resource responsibly.  We strongly believe (87%) that industry must be held responsible for any ecological damage it does from oil sands development.  About 2/3 of Albertans accept some degree of federal role in the oil sands.  So this collaborative inter-governmental ecological involvement in oil sands will not offend Albertans.  But some actions and attitudes by government approach to oil sands development will offend us.

The entire field of ecological monitoring of the oil sands has to be done independent of government and industry interference and with a long-term view not tied to any investment interests, political agendas or election cycles.  The duty to ensure responsible development of the oil sands is a shared function of the federal and provincial governments along with industry.  Albertans own this vital resource and we need to ensure it is exploited in a integrated responsible way. We need to see oil sands developed with an integrated economic, environmental, social, political and cultural perspective, not just jobs and investment.

We need to look at governments as our property managers and industry as our contractors to grow the wealth from this asset.  We need to make all of them accountable to the greater good of all Albertans, including future generations, not just shareholders, bankers and other economic stakeholders.  There is a lot of fixing that has to be done to return the confidence and pride of Albertans about oil sands development. The joint effort this water monitoring heralds is a strong and positive step in the right direction.