01/05/2012 01:27 EST | Updated 03/06/2012 05:12 EST

Alberta, Ottawa aim to release first phase of oilsands monitoring within weeks

EDMONTON - Alberta and the federal government are aiming to reveal the first phase of an oilsands environmental monitoring plan by the end of the month.

"We know it is essential for both governments to stand together behind a monitoring system that gives the world assurance that this critical global resource is being developed responsibly," said Mark Cooper, spokesman for Alberta Environment and Water.

"We plan to deliver a system that is comprehensive and scientifically credible. We're going to get this right. We can't afford not to."

Revamped monitoring comes in response to six reports in 2010 and 2011 that all pointed to problems in how Alberta tracks the environmental impact of the huge and rapidly growing industry. Although the province has collected decades worth of data in the area, reviewers concluded the information didn't give a very clear picture of what tens of billions of dollars in development have done to the Athabasca River and its watershed.

Last July, both federal and provincial environment ministers announced reforms to monitoring and promised to work together.

Cooper said the announcement coming in the next few weeks won't give the whole picture. The scientific plan will come first, together with provisions for third-party scientific oversight. Details on governance will come later.

"We want to ensure that the model we develop is efficient and credible and is not seen as another level of bureaucracy."

A credible monitoring plan is seen by many as an essential step towards defending an industry coming under increasing scrutiny and criticism around the world.

A decision on permitting TransCanada's (TSX:TRP) Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oilsands bitumen to U.S. refineries, was delayed by the American government by public concern over the impact of the oilsands. The European Union is considering measures that would penalize high-carbon fuels, which would include those derived from Alberta's tarry resource.

As well, 14 U.S. corporations have announced a range of actions to reduce their carbon footprint — from avoiding oilsands-derived fuel to trying to reduce the environmental impact of transporting their products.

With that in mind, the first phase at the end of the month won't come a moment too soon, said Ron Wallace, a member of the provincial panel that recommended monitoring reform.

"If you miss the April-May implementation window, it means you lose a year.

"With...the attention that this has now received worldwide, this is an opportunity for the Alberta government to really shine and to show that it's committed to a monitoring program. If you lose a year, there are some people who might question the Alberta government's commitment."

Wallace said an end-of-January announcement would be barely enough time to get scientists in the field this spring, when research suggests contaminants flow into the Athabasca from meltwater.

Travis Davies of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers said industry also welcomes an announcement.

"It absolutely helps us," he said. "It puts credible data on the table, (and) whether it's our critics or whether it's the public that simply expects to know, we've said the whole time that we are fully prepared to be judged by a balanced approach to policy and good science."

Davies said industry will be watching to ensure both levels of government are working together, so companies don't have to report twice. The new system should incorporate expertise already in the field, he suggested.

David Schindler, a University of Alberta scientist whose work helped push for monitoring reform, said he'll be looking to ensure the work will be done by qualified staff.

"The spring program will be inadequate if Environment Canada is not included," he wrote in an email.

Independence is also essential, he said.

"It won't matter how good it is if it is run solely by government. There will be no trust by the aboriginal people and little by the public at large, including all the foreign governments that Alberta is always trying to convince."

Jennifer Grant of the environmental think-tank Pembina Institute said the program needs to get moving because new oilsands developments are already before regulators with impact assessments based on data compiled from the discredited monitoring.

"Is it in time to inform the next regulatory approval?" asked Grant. "We've got projects that have recently been approved, we've got upcoming projects, and (they're) basing their (assessments) on old data."