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Air Water Land: June 2011
New water monitoring plan for Athabasca

Environment Canada releases its proposed strategy for the heart of the oilsands

By Elsie Ross

A new surface water quality monitoring program for the Lower Athabasca River in the heart of Alberta’s largest oilsands region released in March by federal Environment Minister Peter Kent will be incorporated into the work of a revamped provincial monitoring program, says the province’s environment minister.

“Although this work is a good starting point, physical monitoring of water is only one piece of the overall system needed,” Rob Renner says. “We need to build on this plan to develop a system that is robust, verifiable, transparent and governed appropriately. Most importantly, it must be credible, which is exactly what Alberta’s independent provincial monitoring panel is working on.”

The panel, co-chaired by Hal Kvisle, former president and chief executive officer of TransCanada Corporation, and Howard Tennant, former University of Lethbridge president and vice-chancellor, is to report back to Renner with initial recommendations in June on developing a world-class monitoring system.

“This plan is the first step towards an improved surface water–monitoring program,” says Kent. “This will take time, but we are on track and are committed to getting it right. Our monitoring, research and other actions rise to the challenge of protecting the environment and ensuring the responsible development of the oilsands.”

Kent says that the development of the oilsands is key to Canada’s economic prosperity and energy security.

“Developing this important resource can be done in an environmentally responsible manner, provided that science and technological innovation are brought to bear on the issue. We are confident that we can protect the environment while seeing the economic benefits of the oilsands.”

Created in collaboration with Alberta, the federal scientific plan is in response to the report of the federal oilsands advisory panel, which was struck in September 2010 to review the environmental monitoring systems of the Athabasca River Basin. In its report, the advisory panel called for the development of a scientifically credible water-monitoring system that will provide assurance to Canadians about the environmental performance of the oilsands industry. The panel noted that Environment Canada, as a trusted science organization, is well equipped to lead in the design, implementation and scientific oversight of such a monitoring system.

Following the release of the report in December, John Baird, acting environment minister, appointed a scientific team to come up with a water-monitoring report within 90 days.

The Lower Athabasca water-quality monitoring program plan highlights the need for water-quality measurements to be taken more frequently, and in more places, which will ensure there is sufficient data available to track possible changes, says Kent. It also emphasizes the need for the monitoring program to be linked to other monitoring systems, such as air quality and biodiversity, to ensure a holistic view of environmental quality and work is already underway in those areas.

The plan will promote the use of an approach designed to allow for the continuous improvement of monitoring and data interpretation. In order to monitor long-term changes and maintain environmental quality within defined levels, it will assess the cumulative effects of oilsands activities.

The plan also promotes transparency, and all data will be publicly available.

The first phase of the plan deals with surface water­–quality monitoring in the main stem of the Athabasca River and its major tributaries between Fort McMurray, Alta., and the Wood Buffalo National Park boundary, and focuses on the physical and chemical attributes of water quality.

At present, both the provincial and federal governments currently monitor water quality in the Lower Athabasca, industry monitors water as a condition to operate and there is additional monitoring by the industry-funded Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program, the plan notes. However, it says there is a lack of integration and several recent reports found the current monitoring system did not deliver data of sufficient quality or quantity to detect or quantify the effects of oilsands development.

The federal report, though, acknowledged that past monitoring activities have yielded data at some sites and during some time periods that will be critical to the optimal functioning of the new monitoring plan.

The federal water quality–monitoring plan was subject to peer review, and the reviewers believe the plan has sufficient technical detail to respond to the call for comprehensiveness, scientific rigour, adaptiveness and transparency, says Elizabeth Dowdeswell, who chaired the peer review process.

She also emphasized the need for monitoring systems to be integrated over a broader appropriate geographic area and to include air quality, wildlife and water quantity.

“If these additional elements are delivered with the same comprehensive approach and attention to scientific rigour that I experienced as part of the current water quality–monitoring plan, and if they are implemented according to the principles enunciated above, then we should have a comprehensive world-class environmental monitoring system for this region,” Dowdeswell said in a statement.

Jennifer Grant, director of the Pembina Institute’s oilsands program, welcomed the report, which she described as a “good step” toward providing a credible foundation for the monitoring of the Athabasca River downstream from the oilsands. “We hope this plan signals that the federal government is willing to meet its obligations to ensure that oilsands development occurs responsibly and in accordance with Canadians’ expectations.”

Grant also suggests that the environmental assessment for Total E&P Canada Ltd.’s Joslyn mine was premised on the insufficient data referred to in the federal report. On that basis, it would be prudent to delay approval of the project until sufficient data has been collected to assess the level of impact of oilsands development on the Athabasca River, she said.

While an effective monitoring system is a necessary component of responsible management of oilsands development, monitoring alone is not sufficient, Grant says. “It is now time for the Government of Canada to outline a plan for how regulation of the oilsands industry will be improved.”

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