While the shape of a promised, provincewide system for tracking environmental impacts of industrial development is still being determined, Alberta Environment spokesman Mark Cooper said including pipeline spills is possible.
"We need to look at that as we develop the system," he said.
"I'm not saying that we wouldn't pay more close attention to following up to see the long-term impacts on situations like this. We could very well. It makes sense that we do that."
Last week's spill of up to 475,000 litres of light sour crude into the Red Deer River has focused attention on the overall impacts of pipeline spills in the province — especially as Alberta comes under increasing scrutiny over its oilsands development and neighbouring provinces consider pipelines that would move oilsands product.
Plains Midstream Canada says its 24-hour control centre first noticed a pressure decrease with its pipeline on June 7. There was oil in the pipeline but it wasn't actually flowing through the system at the time. The company says as a precaution it began closing valves. Later that evening people living near the Red Deer River report seeing a sheen on the water.
An independent committee is in the process of designing how the impacts of Alberta's booming economy should be measured, both in the oilsands region and throughout the province. That committee is expected to report June 30.
The province already has stringent requirements for spill cleanup and remediation, said spokesman Dave Ealey.
Companies must have cleanup and remediation plans approved by provincial officials. Water is tested until it meets national standards for human health and water downstream of an accident matches that upstream. Fish populations are sampled and compared with historic benchmarks. Shorelines must be cleaned up.
Eventually, the province signs off on the cleanup. That process took three years for a 2008 spill on the Red Deer involving a much smaller amount of oil.
"Our primary focus is on what flows through the water system here," said Ealey. "If we don't continue to see hydrocarbons in there that we can tag to that particular event, then the consequences of that event are signed off."
Industry figures show the oil that spilled last week is only the tip of the slick. Since 2006, the volume of hydrocarbons accidentally released from pipelines has never been less than 3.4 million litres a year — the equivalent of the second-largest spill in Alberta history, repeated annually.
That's enough that the province has to start considering long-term, cumulative effects, said York University environmental historian Sean Kheraj.
"Those are the kinds of questions that need to be asked," he said.
While the industry says spills are at an all-time low of 1.6 incidents per 1,000 kilometres of pipeline, Kheraj said that figure conceals as much as it reveals.
"The volume of the spill and the particular location is a better way of determining the environmental impact," he said. "The aggregate data sometimes disguises the potential environmental impacts."
Phil French of the Red Deer River Naturalists said his group is preparing a letter to the provincial government asking it to take a longer view of spill impacts.
"Every time the river floods and the river changes, there's going to be oil there," he said. "We're strongly calling for long-term monitoring of the effects of this."
People who live and work on the river want the same.
"I definitely feel the same way — absolutely," said Garry Pierce, a fishing guide who takes clients from around the world along that stretch of river. "They've got to be here as long as it takes to monitor what's going on along that river."
While Cooper points out that spills are a tiny fraction of the oil that is piped safely every day, he said the government doesn't dismiss accidents.
"We take every ounce that is spilled very seriously."
He said the government knows it's being watched.
"We need to demonstrate, not only in the (oilsands) but all over the province, that the effects of industrial development are being monitored effectively."
Cooper said that although the provincewide monitoring system is still being designed, the province knows the stakes are high.
"What we need to establish is that whatever system we bring forward is robust enough and credible enough to be able meet the scrutiny that Alberta is under."