The governments of Canada and Alberta will announce details of a new environmental-monitoring regime in the province's oil sands on Friday, as they look shore up an industry whose growth plans are under attack from environmental groups. Mark Cooper, a spokesman for Alberta Environment Minister Diana McQueen, said on Thursday that the two governments would make an announcement in Edmonton, Alberta, on the new monitoring plan. He did not offer details.
Separate panels commissioned by the two governments last year found that the current monitoring regime, which is backed by oil sands producers, is not capable of assessing the effect of oil sands production on the environment. The tar sands of northern Alberta are the third-largest oil reserve in the world, behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela and output from the region is set to double to three million barrels a day by 2020. But environmental groups have long campaigned against developing the resource, arguing that northern Alberta's massive oil sands mining projects spew pollution and greenhouse gases and harm local communities and wildlife.
Opposition from green groups was seen as a key reason that U.S. President Barack Obama last month refused to allow TransCanada Corp to build its Keystone XL pipeline project, which was set to ship crude from the oil sands to Texas refineries. A knowledgeable source said that McQueen and federal Environment Minister Peter Kent would unveil details of how the new joint federal-Alberta monitoring system will be implemented. One expert said that combining the best recommendations of the federal and provincial panels would be the best solution for the new monitoring scheme.
"I hope they will use something close to the science plan that Environment Canada has (called for) and for governance use something very close to the ... expert panel (Alberta's study had recommended)," said University of Alberta biologist David Schindler.
Schindler was the co-author of a 2010 study that found that oil sands plants were sending toxins including mercury, arsenic and lead into the watershed. Schindler criticized work by the government-supported and industry-funded Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program, which has said pollution in the region's Athabasca River system occurs naturally.