Alberta and Canada have just announced a multi-year plan for monitoring the oil sands. Boosting the program from $20 to $50 million a year, the governments promise more and better data, as well as public access to the monitoring results. The increased costs are to be funded by industry, according to the Environment Ministers who made the joint announcement. So far so good. But will it pass the sniff test of credibility?
Without wanting to sound too pessimistic, I have my doubts. Last year, the Government of Alberta commissioned a panel to make recommendations for a new, world class monitoring system which reported out at the end of June. One of its key recommendations was to create an independent monitoring commission. Under the heading ‘Legitimacy’, this is what its co-chairs had to say (at page 28):
Governments must deal with the inherent conflict of being the resource owner, regulator and revenue taker. For the new monitoring system to have the requisite legitimacy and scientific credibility, the system must operate at arm’s length from all affected parties, including governments, regulators and those being regulated.
Ignoring this advice, the governments have chosen to initiate a program that reports to two assistant deputy ministers, one federal and one provincial. Although they say that data “will be made public on an ongoing basis”, the only independent review that is planned is not scheduled for another three years. That’s a very long time, given the rapidity of our contemporary news cycles. In the meantime, anyone who cares to interpret the monitoring results in whatever way best suits their own agenda (whether it be political, corporate or contrarian) will have free rein. Without an authoritative, independent third-party to provide definitive statements on the state of the environment and human health in the oil sands region, Canadians and others around the world still won’t know who to believe.
The Globe and Mail reports that officials say they “will worry about the governance structure later.” For everyone’s sake, I hope they don’t wait too long.