We need an independent environmental protection and monitoring agency with teeth

We need an independent environmental protection and monitoring agency with teeth

By Laura Bowman
Staff Counsel

Given all of the recent reports on the Oilsands released late last year, including the Royal Society report (RSC), the Liberal report, the NDP report, the report released through the Pembina Institute on behalf of various environmental groups, and the most recent Federal expert panel report, who can keep up with all of this “new” information?

The answer is you, if you keep in mind three main points from all of these reports:

  1. Environmental Assessments (EA) of Alberta oilsands are not very good.
  2. Monitoring of the oilsands is so poor that we don’t know much about what the impacts are.
  3. Federal laws are not being adequately used to protect wildlife and fish.

A smattering of the different recommendations include:

1) Environmental Assessments (EA):

  • Give federal EA of energy projects to the Environmental Assessment Agency instead of the National Energy Board (Liberal);
  • Have Alberta Environment attend all environmental assessment hearings (RSC);
  • Give more attention to cumulative effects, including regional cumulative effects, at the EA stage (Liberal, NDP, RSC, Pembina);
  • Require better air quality analysis for EIA (RSC); and
  • Rescind scope of project provisions of federal EA legislation (NDP).

2) Monitoring:

  • Improve information sharing and engagement and better integrate  credible, peer-reviewed science (Federal Panel);
  • Give greater credence to scientific determinations (NDP);
  • Require federal leadership in water monitoring, groundwater monitoring and baseline fish habitat data collection, conduct a year-round longitudinal study of the Athabasca River, and monitor wetlands (Liberal); and
  • Require that RAMP have more frequent external scientific oversight and that environmental monitoring meets same standards as pulp industry, provide public access to all data, and ensure that flow data has ongoing validation, (RSC).

3) Federal Laws:

  • Enforce fisheries pollution provisions and fund fish habitat studies for ecological base flow (Liberal, Pembina); and
  • Expand the regulatory capacity of Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (SRD), collect cumulative effects data in a central public registry, have Alberta Environment and SRD participate in ERCB hearings, ensure the federal government is involved in issues of federal interest, and improve ERCB measures for waterfowl protection including preventing bitumen from reaching the tailings ponds (RSC).

Notably absent from most of these reports is much discussion on non-duck or non-fish wildlife impacts from the footprint of the oilsands, for example on Caribou. Exceptions include the Pembina report, which more specifically highlights species at risk and the NDP report, which calls for better migratory bird and species at risk oversight during the EA process.

So far, the Alberta Government has committed to make water quality data public and the Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans has committed to environmental base flows of some kind. However a clear, unambiguous commitment to better monitoring resources and stronger federal and provincial oversight at the approvals stage is still glaringly absent. What the oilsands really need is a well-resourced agency with the expertise and independence to be a bold regulator. The rest will flow from this.

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