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

Crude to world-class: Alberta-Ottawa revamp oilsands monitoring as world watches

FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. - Rod Hazewinkel steps into the placid waters of Alberta's Firebag River, a short helicopter ride from the industrial moonscape of the oilsands. He fills a jar with water, then pulls his boots from the muddy bottom and climbs back on the bank.

Tiny oil slicks bubble from the muck.

This spot, one of dozens monitored by provincial and federal scientists, isn't near any oilsands mines despite the tang of asphalt that even at this distance hangs in the air. The iridescent, dime-sized blobs floating down the clear brown river come from the oilsands themselves — not the energy development that exploits them.

"There's a natural level of contamination," says Hazewinkel, a limnologist with Alberta Environment and the provincial scientist responsible for environmental monitoring in the region. "Industrial contamination is a small part of that."

Hazewinkel's job is to help untangle the sources. It's about to get a lot more complicated.

Last year, both the federal and Alberta governments announced major revamps to how they track the impact of tens of billions of dollars in oilsands development.

That came after internationally publicized reports concluded that contamination from industry was increasing and current monitoring was deeply flawed.

The scrutiny hasn't stopped.

For months now American and Canadian protesters have been citing environmental concerns in opposing TransCanada Ltd.'s proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring more oilsands bitumen to U.S. refineries. And, on Tuesday, the federal auditor general is to release an assessment of how well Ottawa has kept up with the oilsands cumulative impacts.

"It's a world-class resource and it needs a world-class monitoring system to assure us that the resource is being developed sustainably and responsibly," says Dan Wicklum, Environment Canada's director of water science. "We must have that assurance in order to do business."

Scientists like Hazewinkel and bureaucrats like Wicklum are on the front line of implementing that system. There's talk of environmental limits and new regulations.

Some critics are encouraged. Ecologist David Schindler, whose work helped nail down the link between industry and contamination in the Athabasca River, calls Environment Canada's plans excellent.

But they will be expensive at a time when both Ottawa and Edmonton are cutting environment budgets. Both governments are eyeing each other warily over who will run the show, and a role for aboriginals who live in the area hasn't been defined.

Some question if monitoring matters at all unless governments are willing to act on the findings.

"The intention is right, but we haven't seen the political will to actually set those limits," says Simon Dyer of the environmental think-tank Pembina Institute.

With five separate monitoring programs in the region, it would be wrong to claim nobody's watching the oilsands. Two levels of government, industry and third parties such as the Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program have data that goes back, for some sites, to the 1970s.

Once a month, summer and winter, Hazewinkel and his colleagues climb into choppers, pull on their hip waders and check on more than a dozen sites spread out over hundreds of kilometres of northeast Alberta.

They measure heavy metal and hydrocarbon concentrations, temperature, turbidity and oxygen content. A single site can yield up to 400 data points.

But those sites were never set up as part of a network, says Leigh Noton, Alberta's senior adviser on water quality.

"Some monitoring sites were originally set up for short-term use and were never designed for the long term."

As well, industry has kept monitoring data close to its chest.

"There's been a bit of reluctance on the part of the funders, who are largely industry, to make (data) freely available because they were concerned that new industry coming in would get a free ride," Noton says.

The Royal Society of Canada, an independent body of some of Canada's top scientists, says the result is monitoring that is entirely outstripped by the scope and scale of the development it's supposed to watchdog.

The federal plan — the product of nearly 100 PhD scientists from across Canada — is intended to fix that, says Wicklum.

It would increase the number of monitoring sites to 43, an increase of 10, and extend their range from south of Fort McMurray to the Northwest Territories border. The sites would be checked more often and the health of fish, bugs and other animals, as well as water quality, would be tested.

Scientists would be allowed for the first time to compare data from different sites to reveal and explain long-term trends.

"We made sure we were measuring things to understand the (flow) of contaminants," says Wicklum. "We are measuring where potential pathways of contaminants are."

He also promises clear information.

"Both governments have committed to improved transparency. For us, that means public access to data."

Bev Yee, an assistant deputy minister with Alberta Environment, says the federal proposal fits well into what she calls a new approach from the province. She says Alberta is moving away from assessing impacts project by project to looking at how everything adds up.

"Once we understand the impact (of a proposal), is it going to put us in a situation where we're butting up against environmental limits?" she explains.

"There will be limits that will not be exceeded. We're proposing management frameworks that give us some early warning triggers to ensure that we're watchful earlier, so that when we see growth happening, we're able to put measures in if we see we're potentially coming close to some of those limits."

Environmental limits, however, don't necessarily mean limits to growth.

"If we want to see growth and we want to avoid saying 'no,' what we want to do is be innovate and creative and find ways so that we can grow."

Still, Yee promises, "a limit is a limit is a limit.

"If we find ourselves in a situation where we'll be exceeding that limit, we're not going to allow that to continue. It might mean more stringent regulations at some point."

Improved oilsands monitoring will cost more. Wicklum doesn't dispute estimates of $50 million a year, to be funded by industry, but says those costs will eventually fall.

He and Yee acknowledge resources will likely have to come from other programs as both levels of government cut overall environmental funding.

"In some areas it might mean more resources," says Yee. "In other areas it might mean some reallocation."

The plan, politically, isn't a done deal, either. Alberta jealously guards its jurisdiction over resources and Wicklum acknowledges the federal monitoring proposal is the subject of high-level talks.

"I know that the ministers spoke several times. At the senior officials level there's been a number of conversations."

Yee says the federal proposal fits with Alberta's overall plans.

"We actually need those two pieces to fit together. The importance of working together in a co-ordinated way has been elevated."

Back in the field, downstream of the oilsands, Hazewinkel wades out into the middle of the Athabasca to take more samples while a barge chugs peacefully by. Then the team choppers to another site, landing on a patch of exposed oilsands so hardened it looks like pavement.

Noton, watching Hazewinkel fill more sample bottles, acknowledges how much work remains to be done.

"We don't have the broad direction yet," he says. "There's a number of things in the air for monitoring."