FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. - The federal and Alberta environment ministers have been given a first-hand look at expanded environmental oilsands monitoring that is intended to answer the industry's detractors in Canada and abroad.
"It gives some of our critics abroad tangible scientific evidence of the responsible way the oilsands are being developed," said federal minister Peter Kent, who toured the region Monday with his provincial colleague Diana McQueen.
The ministers got an in-the-field view of improvements being made upon the recommendation of an independent scientific panel that found major flaws in how changes in the region's ecosystem were being tracked. The upgrades will take a number of years to be fully operational and will cost an estimated $50 million annually.
But work has already started. Federal and provincial scientific staff in the region have already doubled. New equipment is in the field.
Million-dollar sensors will use lasers to give more accurate assessments of what's in the air — both gases and particles. The lasers will also enable researchers to measure greenhouse gas emissions much more accurately.
Sonar-equipped power boats are drawing three-dimensional maps of the Athabasca River and are taking precise measurements of stream flow. That will help create a much clearer picture of how much contamination in the river comes from natural riverbank erosion and how much from industry.
Both Environment Canada and the Wood Buffalo Environmental Association, a monitoring agency funded largely by industry, have opened new facilities in Fort McMurray.
Water monitoring sites have increased to 40 from 21. Seventeen new air monitoring sites are to be brought in — 10 over the next five years — and will stretch as far east as Manitoba and as far north as the Northwest Territories.
For the first time this spring, scientists were on oilsands-region rivers every day to measure contaminants in runoff.
"The biggest challenge is scale," said Fred Wrona, Environment Canada's senior scientific adviser.
Not only do trailer-sized monitoring stations loaded with carefully calibrated gear need to be transported to remote spots in the bush, provincial and federal researchers have had to get together to ensure they were taking the same measurements in the same way.
"The type of information we needed, we needed to have a much more integrated and co-ordinated approach," said Wrona.
He acknowledged that it'll be tough to establish an environmental baseline for the area, given more than a decade's worth of intensive development. But he said an idea of what's ecologically normal can be constructed by using old monitoring data and information from environmentally similar sites that remain relatively untouched.
Crucial decisions on how improved monitoring will be governed remain unanswered, especially on how independent any agency will remain from government.
"I've said it (will be) arm's length, and independent and credible, with peer review," said McQueen. "We agree on that. It's how do we roll that out?"
McQueen is currently reviewing recommendations on how that program should be governed. She said those suggestions as well as her response will be released over the coming weeks.
"I prefer an external, arm's-length (governance), so that we do have the independence," McQueen said. "It's very important for us in Alberta and nationally, but also internationally, that the credibility piece is there."
Kent promised the data would be publicly available.
"There will be absolute transparency," he said. "We will seek peer review on a regular basis."
Kent and McQueen announced a radically revamped oilsands monitoring plan in February. Criticism from scientists and others that the provincial government was doing a poor job of overseeing environmental changes caused by oilsands development has been affecting the province's attempts to increase its energy exports.
Ultimately, the three-year plan aims to increase the number of monitoring sites by more than 50 per cent. The new approach includes looking for hazardous chemicals ignored under the old plan.
Eventually, monitors are also to examine biodiversity, animal toxicity, plant health and habitat disruption.
Both Kent and McQueen said they have broad support from industry on funding the monitoring program, although final arrangements are still being discussed. This year's efforts are being funded by government.
Who pays for what is expected to be finalized by the end of the summer, said McQueen.
Jennifer Grant of the Pembina Institute welcomed the progress made on improving oilsands monitoring.
"Seeing tangible, on-the-ground improvements is positive and we look forward to similar progress implementing an independent governance system with enhanced inclusivity and a sustainable, long-term funding model."
But she cautioned that governments still need to establish environmental limits for the region, as well as complete a land-use plan.
Syncrude Upgrader and Oil Sands
The refining or upgrading of the tarry bitumen which lies under the oil sands consumes far more oil and energy than conventional oil and produces almost twice as much carbon. Each barrel of oil requires 3-5 barrels of fresh water from the neighboring Athabasca River. About 90% of this is returned as toxic tailings into the vast unlined tailings ponds that dot the landscape. Syncrude alone dumps 500,000 tons of toxic tailings into just one of their tailings ponds everyday.
Boreal Forest and Coast Mountains / Atlin Lake, British Columbia | 2001
This area, located in the extreme northwest of British Columbia, marks the western boundary of the Boreal region. On the border of the Yukon and Southeast Alaska, the western flank of these mountains descends into Alaska's Tongass Rainforest and British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest. Far from the oil sands, the greatest remaining coastal temperate and marine ecosystem is imminently threatened by the proposal to build a 750-mile pipeline to pump 550,000 barrels per day of oil sands crude to the coast. Once there, it would be shipped through some of the most treacherous waters, virtually assuring an ecological disaster at some point in the future.
Tailings Pond in Winter, Abstract #2 / Alberta Tar Sands | 2010
Even in the extreme cold of the winter, the toxic tailings ponds do not freeze. On one particularly cold morning, the partially frozen tailings, sand, liquid tailings and oil residue, combined to produce abstractions that reminded me of a Jackson Pollock canvas.
Aspen and Spruce | Northern Alberta | 2001
Photographed in late autumn in softly falling snow, a solitary spruce is set against a sea of aspen. The Boreal Forest of northern Canada is perhaps the best and largest example of a largely intact forest ecosystem. Canada's Boreal Forest alone stores an amount of carbon equal to ten times the total annual global emissions from all fossil fuel consumption.
Tar Sands at Night #1 | Alberta Oil Sands | 2010
Twenty four hours a day the oil sands eats into the most carbon rich forest ecosystem on the planet. Storing almost twice as much carbon per hectare as tropical rainforests, the boreal forest is the planet's greatest terrestrial carbon storehouse. To the industry, these diverse and ecologically significant forests and wetlands are referred to as overburden, the forest to be stripped and the wetlands dredged and replaced by mines and tailings ponds so vast they can be seen from outer space.
Dry Tailings #2 | Alberta Tar Sands | 2010
In an effort to deal with the problem of tailings ponds, Suncor is experimenting with dry tailings technology. This has the potential to limit, or eliminate, the need for vast tailings ponds in the future and lessen this aspect of the oil sands' impact.
Tailings Pond Abstract #2 | Alberta Tar Sands / 2010
So large are the Alberta Tar Sands tailings ponds that they can be seen from space. It has been estimated by Natural Resources Canada that the industry to date has produced enough toxic waste to fill a canal 32 feet deep by 65 feet wide from Fort McMurray to Edmonton, and on to Ottawa, a distance of over 2,000 miles. In this image, the sky is reflected in the toxic and oily waste of a tailings pond.
Confluence of Carcajou River and Mackenzie River | Mackenzie Valley, NWT | 2005
The Caracajou River winds back and forth creating this oxbow of wetlands as it joins the Mackenzie flowing north to the Beaufort Sea. This region, almost entirely pristine, and the third largest watershed basin in the world, will be directly impacted by the proposed Mackenzie Valley National Gas Pipeline to fuel the energy needs of the Alberta Oil Sands mega-project.
Black Cliff | Alberta Oil Sands | 2005
Oil sands pit mining is done in benches or steps. These benches are each approximately 12-15 meters high. Giant shovels dig the oil sand and place it into heavy hauler trucks that range in size from 240 tons to the largest trucks, which have a 400-ton capacity.
Oil Sands Upgrader in Winter| Alberta Oil Sands | 2010
The Alberta oil sands are Canada's single largest source of carbon. They produce about as much annually as the nation of Denmark. The refining of the tar-like bitumen requires more water and uses almost twice as much energy as the production of conventional oil. Particularly visible in winter, vast plumes of toxic pollution fill the skies. The oil sands are so large they create their own weather systems.
Boreal Forest and Wetland | Athabasca Delta Northern Alberta | 2010
Located just 70 miles downstream from the Alberta oil sands, the Athabasca Delta is the world's largest freshwater delta. It lies at the convergence of North America's four major flyways and is a critical stopover for migrating waterfowl and considered one of the most globally significant wetlands. It is threatened both by the massive water consumption of the tar sands and its toxic tailings ponds.
Tar Pit #3
This network of roads reminded me of a claw or tentacles. It represents for me the way in which the tentacles of the tar sands reach out and wreak havoc and destruction. Proposed pipelines to American Midwest, Mackenzie Valley, and through the Great Bear Rainforest will bring new threats to these regions while the pipelines fuel new markets and ensure the proposed five fold expansion of the oil sands.