Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent and his Alberta counterpart Diana McQueen announced a new on-line portal for tar sands monitoring data today.

As the Canadian Press story notes, this announcement is “part of an increasingly urgent effort to court more public buy-in for Canada’s resource development practices as the oil patch worries about how it will pipe its product to port.” That story also noted that Greenpeace was “skeptical” because “the system won’t be fully implemented until 2015 and yet the two levels of government continue to approve new projects in the absence of reliable data on cumulative impacts.”

Good data is better than bad data, but the important thing is that we use it to make better decisions. This monitoring system is still a work in progress, yet new tar sands projects are being rushed through the assessment process before we know the real impact of existing operations.

We’re also concerned about the lack of progress on making the monitoring truly independent of government and industry, which was a key recommendation of scientists.

A healthy dose of skepticism is in order. For years, the Alberta government and industry claimed that any bitumen-related contamination in the Athabasca River is “natural”. The Alberta government website still claims:

“The Athabasca River has always had measurable levels of naturally-ocurring oil sands-derived hydrocarbon compounds, including Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons. This is because bitumen from exposed oil sands along the river banks seeps naturally into the Athabasca River as it cuts through the landscape.
 
Monitoring stations downstream of mine sites show industrial contribution cannot be detected against historically consistent readings of naturally occurring compounds in the Athabasca River.”  [emphasis in original]

As this timeline shows, the problems with environmental monitoring in the tar sands region has been known for a long time:

Timeline

1997: The Alberta government establishes the industry-led Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP) to monitor the cumulative impacts of tar sands operations, including fish health, water quality and acid rain.

1997 – 2010: Critics argue that the monitoring system has been set up to fail, so that government and industry can claim that there is no impact in order to facilitate ongoing expansion of tar sands operations.

February 2004: First independent review of Alberta’s industry-led Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP) finds “a serious problem related to scientific leadership, that individual components of the plan seemed to be designed, operated and analyzed independent of other components, that there was no overall regional plan, that clear questions were not been addressed in the monitoring and that there were significant shortfalls with respect to statistical design of the individual components.” The Alberta government ignores these findings.

October 2009: Scientist David Schindler and colleagues publish the first of two articles in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that links elevated levels of contaminant in the Athabasca River to tar sands operations. Schindler is also highly critical of the industry-led monitoring system (RAMP).

July 2010: Scientist David Schindler and colleagues publish a second article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences linking elevated levels of contaminant in the Athabasca River to tar sands operations. These articles receive substantial international media coverage and embarrass the federal and provincial governments into taking action.

September 2010: In response to Schindler’s research, the federal Minister of the Environment announces the establishment of an Oil Sands Advisory Panel on water monitoring for the Lower Athabasca River Basin and connected waterways. Specifically, the Advisory Panel was asked to: (1) Document, review and assess the current body of scientific research and monitoring; and (2) Identify strengths and weaknesses in the scientific monitoring, and the reasons for them.

December 2010: Federal Auditor finds that Environment Canada has insufficient data to monitor oil sands development.

December 2010: The Federal Oil Sands Advisory Panel presented a report to the federal Environment Minister that reviewed current monitoring activities in the lower Athabasca River system, identified key shortcomings, and provided recommendations on what would constitute a world-class monitoring program for the oil sands region.

January 2011: Scientific review panel releases highly critical report on Alberta’s industry-led Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program. Finds the program is not sufficient to detect changes if they occur, couldn’t identify potential sources for change if the changes are detected, is not asking the types of questions that the program should be asking, nor is it monitoring the kinds of things they should be to answer the proper questions.

January 2011: Alberta Minister of the Environment Rob Renner announces the creation of an Environmental Monitoring Panel “to provide recommendations on the development of a provincial scale world class environmental monitoring, evaluation and reporting system, with an initial focus on the Lower Athabasca region in northeastern Alberta.”

June 2011: Alberta’s Environmental Monitoring committee releases its report.

February 2012: Alberta and federal government announce a Joint Canada-Alberta Implementation Plan for Oil Sands Monitoring. This plan will be operational by 2015. Scientists re-iterate that the program must be truly independent of government and industry if it is to be credible.

October 2012: Alberta announces that a committee will study how to set up a monitoring program. The program would not be independent of government.

February 2013: The Canadian Press reports that the joint monitoring program is stalled due to infighting between the two levels of government.