Canada, Alberta commit to 'improve' environmental monitoring of oil sands

The governments of Canada and Alberta, stung by the recent US decision to postpone development of the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline project, have agreed to step up their monitoring of the environmental effects of oil sands developments.

“Today we are launching the most transparent and accountable oil sands monitoring system in the world,” said Canada’s Environment Minister Peter Kent, referring to the Alberta oil sands as “a key driver” of the Canadian economy.

“These scientific reports will be posted on our web page for the world to see,” said Kent. “We challenge others in the international oil producing community to match Canada’s commitment to environmental monitoring.”

Announcement of the new plan coincided with a visit to China this week by Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper to discuss his country's vast oil reserves, the world's third-largest after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela at more than 170 billion bbl.

Harper’s visit was described as an open warning to Washington after US President Barack Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline that would have taken oil from Alberta to the Texas Gulf Coast.

An ‘open warning’

“It’s a not a subtle warning. It’s an open warning. Harper has said Keystone was a wake-up call,” said Wenran Jiang, an energy expert and professor at the University of Alberta.

Some 97% of Canada’s oil exports now go to the US, but Harper is eager to diversify to China, especially as the US apparently does not want a large share in oil sands production which environmentalists say increases greenhouse gas emissions.

That could change under the new plan announced by Alberta and Canada, which will work together over the next 3 years as partners to implement a monitoring program for the oil sands.

They said the new plan “integrates all environmental components: air quality, water quality, water quantity, aquatic ecosystems, terrestrial biodiversity, and habitat.”

Implementation of the new plan will be co-led by Environment Canada and Alberta Environment and Water’s Assistant Deputy Ministers responsible for science and monitoring.

They will work with other government departments responsible for terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity, lands, forests and fish habitat.

The two governments said that their monitoring program will undergo external expert peer review after the third year and then at 5-year intervals to ensure that “scientific integrity is maintained.”

They said an annual report on the status of implementation will be made public, and that data from the monitoring program and the methodology used to produce it will be made public on an ongoing basis.

“Combined with the periodic peer review, it will create a highly transparent and rigorous monitoring program,” they said.

The implementation plan has been developed by scientists from the two governments, and reflects the Integrated Environmental Monitoring Plan for the Oil Sands. That plan released last July, and was developed in collaboration with over 100 provincial, territorial, and academic scientists.

Open access

The two governments also said they are working cooperatively to develop and implement an integrated data management system that will enable “open and transparent public access to a single source of credible oil sands environmental monitoring data and supporting information.”

The two governments expect a number of key developments by the time the 3-year plan is implemented in 2015: the number of sampling sites will be higher and over a larger area; and the number and types of parameters being sampled will increase.

They also expect that the frequency that sampling occurs each year will be significantly increased; the methodologies for monitoring for both air and water will be improved; and an integrated, open data management program will be created.

With regard to water monitoring, the plan will see the following:

• Improved coordination (timing and location of sampling) for assessing related water parameters for cumulative effects assessment.

• New sediment monitoring (loadings and quality) throughout the mainstem and key tributaries of the Athabasca River to establish baseline and downstream conditions of potential contaminants throughout the system.

• New systematic sampling of snow and rainfall in order to assess the relationship between airborne processes, deposition, and surface water runoff entering tributaries and moving downstream.

• New and improved monitoring techniques for measurement of contaminants ice, ice processes the impact of freeze-up and break-up, sediment processes, and water measurement under ice.

• New integrated and intensive scientific investigations on representative watersheds.

• New intensive monitoring of sources of potential near-surface groundwater contaminants and pathways.

Air monitoring

Air monitoring also will see key developments, including:

• New air monitoring in upwind locations to understand the quality of the air moving into the oil sands area.

• New air monitoring in downwind locations to monitor the quality of air moving out of the oil sands area.

• Improved monitoring of potential sources of air contaminants to improve understanding of the levels of contaminants that are being emitted to the air from all oil sands-related sources including stacks, mine operations, tailings ponds, and vehicles.

• Improved monitoring to understand contaminant pathways and fate—how they move in the air and where they are deposited in the environment.

• Improved monitoring methodologies that use remote imagery, mobile monitoring systems, and refined monitoring networks based on the results of special studies designed to identify locations that may experience impacts.

Changes in biodiversity

The two governments also expect to see changes in biodiversity:

• Improved core biodiversity monitoring (species, habitats, disturbance) expanded from the current commitment in the Lower Athabasca planning region to include all current and potential oil sands producing areas to the west including the full Athabasca deposit and Peace deposit.

• New complementary cause-effect monitoring developed and implemented throughout the oil sands areas to better understand and manage effects of different land disturbance types.

• New “wall-to-wall” human disturbance map developed to cover entire oil sands region with ongoing refinement and updating.

• Improved high-resolution imagery will be expanded and used to classify habitat and disturbances and to better understand and predict biodiversity patterns.

Contact Eric Watkins at

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