OTTAWA - The revamping of environmental monitoring of the oilsands was supposed to be the federal government's defence against suspicions of widespread damage.
Now, a full year after Alberta and Ottawa unveiled a three-year plan to set aside their differences and keep a closer watch on the air, water and habitat in northern Alberta, there are still no formal results.
The Conservatives are striving to shore up their environmental credentials in the wake of a public chiding from the federal environmental watchdog and weighty words about climate change from U.S. President Barack Obama.
The centrepiece of Canada's credibility is the oilsands monitoring program. But progress on that front has become caught up in federal-provincial negotiations about technical details.
"We're not yet at a stage where we can release the data and say 'here is what we currently know'," said Karen Dodds, assistant deputy minister of Environment Canada's science and technology branch.
But they are getting close, she says.
Federal and provincial scientists have already scaled up their monitoring of the water systems in areas around the oilsands. Because they were able to start their co-operative efforts last year before the spring melt, they were able to gather data from deposits on top of the snow.
The scientists are also bolstering previous work done on air-quality monitoring. On the biodiversity front, they have begun monitoring specific species.
"All in all, on the ground, a significantly increased effort," Dodds said in an interview.
But the governments' promises to publish its data for all the world to see, use and judge accordingly have not yet been fulfilled — despite anticipation that the facts would begin flowing before the end of 2012.
"We will make the system highly transparent. We will ensure that the scientific data that is collected from our monitoring and analysis is publicly available with common quality assurances and common practices in place," Environment Minister Peter Kent said a year ago, at a joint news conference with Alberta Environment Minister Diana McQueen.
"It is critical that we get the development of Canada's oilsands right."
The hope is to start releasing data through a publicly accessible portal soon — perhaps by the end of the month, although no date has been made final.
Some types of data would be streamed continuously as scientists produce it. Other data would be released at periodic intervals of three or six months. And other categories would be released more holistically, presented in a way that would prevent analysts from coming to spurious conclusions based on a partial picture, Dodds said.
Even though researchers are already producing different types of information, the program can't publish until it can reconcile its current data with information produced in the past, and what is still being produced, by an array of regional organizations, said Dodds.
And everyone involved has to agree on how the data should be presented, create standards for the future and relate different data sets together.
"We're not at that point yet," she said. Why not? "It's just time and effort. Folks from both Alberta and my shop are absolutely working full out on this."
But politics are clearly involved, too. Alberta has long resisted federal involvement in how it manages its natural resources. While natural resources are indeed a provincial responsibility, environment is a shared federal-provincial jurisdiction.
The province has made it clear that it wants to take a more dominant role in how the oilsands are monitored. To that end, Alberta is setting up an arm's-length environmental monitoring agency led by scientist Howard Tennant, who pointedly criticized federal involvement when he was appointed last October.
"This is Alberta and it's our resources and it's our responsibility,” Tennant said at the time.
"It would be wise for us to work in co-operation with them and enter into contracts but the way I see it they're not running Alberta."
And then there is the bill to pay for it all. Industry players have agreed to pay a maximum of $50 million a year for the monitoring, but so far there is no governance structure to collect the money. Key industry players say they don't want to be involved in paying for research done by some regional groups.
So for now, the effort is being financed by government in the hope of recuperating the money later. McQueen told The Canadian Press last week she wants to see a faster resolution to that issue.
As they wait, environmentalists say new oilsands developments should be put on pause.
Without reliable data on how existing operations are cumulatively interfering with nature, authorities should not be proceeding with other permits, said Jennifer Grant, director of oilsands programming at the Pembina Institute.
"As always, the eyes of the world are on this resource," she said. "We need to manage this resource seriously."
Still, the man whose research about oilsands pollution prompted a widespread questioning of government monitoring says he is encouraged what he has heard so far.
"Scientifically, it's huge progress," said ecology professor David Schindler at the University of Alberta.
Schindler said he also wants answers about who will pay for the new system, and is concerned about lack of aboriginal input and the lack of young scientists involved. But he is enthusiastic about the prospects of seeing data made public by the end of February.
"I'm happy with the scientific progress. I'm not happy with the fact that the taxpayers are still paying for this."
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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.