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Environment minister to fight for oil sands monitoring

In the face of ongoing criticism about oil sands, Alberta's government assures that it will set aside funds for monitering of environmental damage caused by the industry. 

The Canadian Press has the story:

Alberta's new environment minister says she'll fight during upcoming budget talks for enough money to fund "world-class'' monitoring system to help answer global critics of the province's much-scrutinized oilsands.

The promise comes after years of cuts to her department and amid pressure for overall spending reductions.

But Diana McQueen said there's broad agreement among her cabinet colleagues and the Tory caucus that Alberta has to do a better environmental job to answer oilsands critics both at home and abroad -- and if that means more cash, so be it.

"We'll be, absolutely, advocating for more resources for our department for the monitoring system,'' she said in an interview.

"There's many different areas (for funding), with regard to equipment, with regards to staff. We know that there's going to be a cost if we want to have the kind of first-class monitoring system that we want in this province. We're going to advocate strongly for that.''

As the new government under Premier Alison Redford begins drawing up its first budget, Alberta Environment is currently in talks with Ottawa about expanding environmental monitoring in the oilsands region. A new system could cost up to $50 million a year, estimates suggest.

The decision to revamp the system came after a series of scientific reports criticized existing efforts. One, from the Royal Society of Canada, said the industry's growth had outstripped Alberta's ability to regulate it.

Staff are working under an "aggressive'' timeline to get the new system up and running, McQueen said. She expects an agreement with the federal government before the end of the year.

McQueen said Ottawa is proposing to keep the system entirely funded by industry. But she said her department -- which plans to extend the program to eventually cover the whole province -- believes the public purse should contribute as well.

"We see a role for government,'' she said.

Alberta Environment has never recovered from a 30 per cent cut in 2008. Its funds also dipped slightly in both of the last two budgets.

Money for monitoring and enforcement has actually shrunk nearly 13 per cent since 2003, despite growth in both industry and international concern over it.

But McQueen sounded confident of her support within the Tory caucus.

"Our caucus is supportive of moving forward,'' she said. "We will get the support we need in order to move this monitoring system forward.''

She added Redford is well aware of the effect environmental concerns could have on Alberta's ability to market oilsands crude.

"Our premier gets it, our cabinet gets it,'' she said.

Europe is considering labelling oilsands crude a high-carbon fuel source. Concerns over oilsands imports are holding up approval of the Keystone XL pipeline in the U.S.

McQueen said she plans to keep defending oilsands development around the world, and doesn't see a contradiction between that and her role as environment minister.

"I think my credibility as an MLA representing my constituency and my credibility of the Minister of Environment and Water is to tell people in Alberta, Canada and around the world the honest facts about the good work that has happened,'' she said. "I'm proud to do that.''

But she acknowledges that monitoring isn't enough if its findings don't result in action.

"We need to up our game,'' she said. "The world is watching us and we know that. We need to tell the facts, but also to expand on the work in the oilsands.

"I think that's something that others are looking for.''

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