10/02/2011 08:00 EDT | Updated 12/02/2011 05:12 EST

Critics doubt oilsands monitoring will lessen impact on environment

EDMONTON - Don't get him wrong.

Simon Dyer of The Pembina Institute, a longtime critic of Alberta's oilsands environmental management, is pleased as punch that Ottawa and Edmonton are finally working together to come up with a scientifically defensible plan to track the impact of mega-developments.

He's just not sure it'll make any difference.

"It's good that the government is talking about environmental limits," he says. "Unfortunately, they've been talking about this (for) a decade and it's still all rhetoric."

Dyer is one of many who welcome proposed improvements to oilsands monitoring. But just as many doubt those plans will live up to their promise.

"I was a reviewer for both Phase 1 and Phase 2 of Environment Canada's monitoring plans, and they are excellent," writes ecologist David Schindler, whose research helped establish the link between industry and growing contamination in the Athabasca River.

"I still have a number of concerns."

Some observers point out that environment departments at both levels have been losing staff and seen budgets shrink as governments seek to reduce deficits.

"Alberta simply does not have the scientific 'horsepower' to do even part of a monitoring program," says Schindler, who adds the federal department has recently shut down important programs that monitored Lake Winnipeg and the Great Lakes.

"It is not clear if the oilsands will be similarly hit or if they are robbing other important programs to concentrate on the oilsands. Either is crazy in a country hell-bent on resource extraction."

Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation says his people haven't been involved enough with the monitoring overhaul, despite a recommendation from the federal panel that aboriginals in the area be involved from the start.

First Nation representatives were at a meeting in April and sat in on a conference call a week later, but that's not enough, he says.

"We heard about it over the news, but we've never been involved with it. We requested that we wanted to be part of it, but every time we ask to be part of it they just block us out."

Bev Yee of Alberta Environment says aboriginal knowledge will be included in the monitoring design at a later date.

"We plan to work with all the stakeholders in terms of finalizing the overall system. It won't be successful if those parties aren't involved."

Dyer says there are other problems.

"There seems to be a disconnect between the environmental managers, who are talking about limits, and Alberta Energy and the oilsands proponents, who are talking about these optimistic oilsands projections."

New projects continue to be approved based on information gathered under old, much-discredited monitoring.

"It does suggest that decision-making is not proceeding responsibly if there's a willingness to approve those projects without the limits in place," Dyer says.

Monitoring without the political will to act on it is useless, says Adam.

"What is (monitoring) going to do? Are they going to say, 'Yeah, we need to make corrections?' I don't think so. It's just a front to make people happy."

Dyer points to one example already apparent.

"We've had very effective monitoring of woodland caribou. We know exactly we're going to lose all those herds in Alberta."