New oilsands monitoring strategy not enough, say environmentalists

Representatives from Greenpeace and Pembina Institute say the three-year implementation plan leaves too much room for error, and an independent commission is needed for credible monitoring.

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“There’s a lack of commitment from the provincial and federal governments to put some type of moratorium of new development in place while this monitoring program is set up,” said Hudema.

“To me, it seems a very rational and pragmatic approach to put a cap on development and to not approve new projects while we find out the extent of the damage that has already been done.”

Groups like Greenpeace are worried about the environmental impact increased development could have during the three years it takes to get new monitoring off the ground. Hudema noted the fact that Exxon recently announced plans to double their tar sands operations, while Shell has plans to create a brand new mine project in the next few years.

“We have more and more reports from First Nations communities and from scientists about disturbing amounts of fish being found with cancerous tumors and lesions on them, and also reports in larger animals like moose,” said Hudema.

“If new projects are constructed and approved, that damage can very quickly either double or triple in the next three years. If we’re already in a crisis situation, that’s completely not acceptable.”

Jennifer Grant, oil sands program director at the Pembina Institute, said the organization is optimistic about the government’s attempts to improve monitoring. However, she did agree with some of Hudema’s concerns.

“We’re certainly glad to see the federal and provincial government work together on this,” said Grant.

“But there are definitely some concerns from the Pembina Institute’s perspective with regards to the short term. If the implementation of this plan is to take place over the next three years, what happens to projects that are proposed in the meantime? There are a number of projects that haven’t yet begun construction, that have been approved but are based on flawed information.”

Grant said projects like Shell’s, which are at the front of the cue for new oil sands development, have been discussed until now using imperfect data from the previous monitoring program. With no moratorium in sight, it’s unclear what impact newly collected data will really have on policy and regulation.

“Monitoring is necessary, but it’s not sufficient on its own. Until monitoring is equipped with a regional land use plan that puts limits in place for air, land and water, and until we have a regional disturbance limit on how much development can occur at any one time…it’s actually not going to change a whole lot,” Grant explained.

“It’s like installing a smoke detector in a community with no fire department. Your smoke detector will go off, but the house will still burn down.”

During this afternoon’s announcement, Minister Kent insisted that the purpose of the new monitoring strategy was to identify problems and then use facts and science to fix them, presumably with the help of necessary policy changes. But when asked about the tar sands’ negative reputation in places like Europe, Kent admitted to an added benefit of the new system—extra credibility for an industry facing intense public opposition.

“The more robust facts and science with regards to responsible oil sands development will allow us to counter some of the more outrageous expressions of criticism and financially damaging mischaracterizations of our development of the oil sands,” said Kent.

From the Ministry’s perspective, more data means more credibility. But Hudema maintains that to achieve real credibility, the body collecting and distributing that data must be separate from government and industry players.

“The fact that they didn’t make this a completely independent body to start, to me it shows that it’s potentially more of a public relations exercise than really trying to get to the bottom of just how much damage the tar sands are causing,” he said.

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