The Syncrude oil sands extraction facility near Fort McMurray, Alberta. Critics are questioning the progress, independence, and funding model of Alberta’s new environmental monitoring agency. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)
Critics are questioning the progress, independence, and funding model of Alberta’s new environmental monitoring agency announced last week by the provincial government.
Environment Minister Diana McQueen announced Oct. 17 that the government would accept recommendations from a working group’s report calling for the new monitoring agency to be “science-driven, arm’s-length, and operationally excellent.”
The province-wide agency has been in the works since 2010, after damning scientific evidence and a public outcry pointed to the need for improved methods to track the environmental impact of Alberta’s booming oil and gas sector.
The agency will begin work in the oil sands region to determine “what is monitored, how it’s monitored and where it’s monitored,” including coordinated monitoring of land, air, water, and biodiversity.
“This agency will be the first of its kind in Canada and signals to Albertans, Canadians and the world that we are committed to world-leading resource stewardship,” McQueen said in a news release.
However, the agency is not up and running by any means. Instead, a management board will begin work to set up the agency—something that could take months or even years. The working group suggested in its report that it could be five years before the agency is fully operational.
“What we’ve got is another committee to report on the results of another committee,” said NDP environment critic Rachel Notley.
Oil Sands Investors Want Improvements to Reduce Risk
An international ethical funds group with investments in Alberta’s oil sands is calling for improved management of the sector in order to decrease financial risk for investors.
The group of 49 investors, worth a combined $2 trillion in assets, signed a document released Monday that said environmental and social management of the oil sands needs to improve in order to reduce investor risk.
“We recognize the economic significance of the resource, but are concerned that the current approach to development, particularly the management of the environmental and social impacts, threatens the long-term viability of the oil sands as an investment,” reads the statement.
Released by the Boston-based environmental advocacy group Ceres, the statement outlines a series of investor expectations including improvements in greenhouse gas emissions, water withdrawals and freshwater contamination, land disturbance and reclamation, and responsibilities to First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities.
“We believe these performance improvements should be prioritized ahead of unmitigated growth ambitions for oil sands development,” the group said.
The investors include a cross-section of asset management, social, environmental, labour, and church groups from North America and Europe.
“Two years after we were told that we don’t know what we’re doing in this area, we’ve still made no progress, but we’re making major decisions about what to do with our industry,” Notley said, referring to the hearings on Shell Oil’s proposed Jackpine Mine Expansion Project, which start this week.
Notley noted that the working group submitted its report to McQueen back in June—four months before it was released to the public—suggesting the lack of an independent relationship.
The funding model for the new system has also not yet been announced, and critics say the model chosen will play a key role in determining its true independence.
“There is still no funding commitment and no clear governance model to ensure independence,” said Greenpeace Canada climate and energy campaigner Mike Hudema. “This is yet another plan to develop a plan.”
He said the province should not approve new projects, such as the Jackpine mine expansion, until the monitoring agency is in place.
Jackpine Expansion Hearings
Meanwhile, the hearings on Shell’s proposed Jackpine expansion will include testimony from Greenpeace after the oil company failed in its attempt to use new rules introduced in the federal omnibus budget to bar the environmental group from presenting.
Shell lawyers had argued that Greenpeace and two university professors should not be permitted to present at the hearings, citing rules from the new Canadian Environmental Assessment Act that limit presenters to those who are directly affected by a project, or those who have relevant information or expertise.
The act, part of Ottawa’s “Responsible Resource Development Plan,” was intended to cut red tape and facilitate investment in Canada’s natural resources by limiting the public’s role in environmental assessment hearings.
Shell had pointed to 18,000 pages of information filed with the Canadian Environment Assessment Agency and a review that has already been underway since 2007 as examples of the need for greater efficiency in the regulatory process.
The regulatory panel conducting the assessment rejected Shell’s request, saying they would provide specific instructions to the presenters in order to keep the hearings on track.
“This is a matter of public interest. Censoring participation contradicts the principles of holding a public hearing,” says Anna Zalik of York University, one of the professors named by Shell.
Zalik submitted evidence regarding Shell’s past and current practices in Nigeria and Canada.
“There are already many obstacles to participation in these processes—time and resources are required. The company that seeks to benefit from a project, in this case Shell, should not be allowed to further limit the evidence available,” she said.
The expansion would increase Shell’s production at the Jackpine facility, located north of Fort McMurray, by 100,000 barrels of oil per day.
The panel will begin hearings on a constitutional challenge to the expansion launched by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation on Oct. 23, with the full hearings to begin Oct. 29.
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