03/13/2012 12:44 EDT | Updated 05/13/2012 05:12 EDT

Alberta expert panel to decide best way to monitor environment on ongoing basis

EDMONTON - A panel charged with figuring out how Alberta's new environment monitoring plan will work was up and running even as the government was announcing Tuesday who was on it.

"I've hired personnel already," Howard Tennant, the former University of Lethbridge president who will lead the panel.

"We haven't been standing still."

Tennant is one of six scientific, regulatory and academic experts who are to design how monitoring will be funded and who will receive reports — an announcement welcomed by both business groups and foreign observers.

"Any time government puts in place modern tools for stewardship, it's a plus," said Brenda Kenny of the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, whose members ship oilsands oil.

Improved oilsands monitoring is also welcomed in Washington, said U.S. Consul General Laura Lochman.

"If it's evident that the resource here in Alberta is being developed and monitored according to world-class standards, and they're doing what they can to try to reduce the environmental impact, then that gives us more confidence in terms of having it a sustainable long-term source of imports for us," she said.

American concerns over the environmental costs of oilsands-derived oil have been a big reason for opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline that would link Alberta to refineries in Texas.

The government agreed in February to the need for an independent monitoring agency run jointly with the federal government. That agreement came after several studies found major flaws in how Alberta monitored the environmental impacts of massive oilsands development.

Researchers are expected to be in the field by this summer to begin that work. Alberta has set aside $11 million for it in this year's budget. Estimates suggest oilsands monitoring will cost about $50 million a year — likely to be borne by industry.

Tennant's panel is to report back to Alberta Environment Minister Diana McQueen by June 30. A formal agreement with Ottawa also still needs to be worked out, Tennant said.

"It's my understanding that they have a nodding agreement that this is approximately where we're going. There is no signed agreement."

Lochman said her office's reports on the issue go both to the U.S. embassy as well as to Washington agencies such as the State Department.

"Washington is aware of what's going on here on various levels," she said.

The Alberta New Democrats criticized the panel's makeup. They say the presence of former TransCanada Corp. head Hal Kvisle, former Energy Resources Conservation Board boss Neil McCrank and Alberta Environment deputy minister Ernie Hui tie the panel too closely to the status quo.

The other members are Calgary ecologist Ron Wallace and Gregory Taylor, dean of the University of Alberta's science faculty. Wallace, Kvisle and Tennant all served on the panel that originally recommended the independent monitoring commission.