"It gives some of our critics abroad tangible scientific evidence of the responsible way the oilsands are being developed," said federal minister Peter Kent, who toured the region Monday with his provincial colleague Diana McQueen.
The ministers got an in-the-field view of improvements being made upon the recommendation of an independent scientific panel that found major flaws in how changes in the region's ecosystem were being tracked. The upgrades will take a number of years to be fully operational and will cost an estimated $50 million annually.
But work has already started. Federal and provincial scientific staff in the region have already doubled. New equipment is in the field.
Million-dollar sensors will use lasers to give more accurate assessments of what's in the air — both gases and particles. The lasers will also enable researchers to measure greenhouse gas emissions much more accurately.
Sonar-equipped power boats are drawing three-dimensional maps of the Athabasca River and are taking precise measurements of stream flow. That will help create a much clearer picture of how much contamination in the river comes from natural riverbank erosion and how much from industry.
Both Environment Canada and the Wood Buffalo Environmental Association, a monitoring agency funded largely by industry, have opened new facilities in Fort McMurray.
Water monitoring sites have increased to 40 from 21. Seventeen new air monitoring sites are to be brought in — 10 over the next five years — and will stretch as far east as Manitoba and as far north as the Northwest Territories.
For the first time this spring, scientists were on oilsands-region rivers every day to measure contaminants in runoff.
"The biggest challenge is scale," said Fred Wrona, Environment Canada's senior scientific adviser.
Not only do trailer-sized monitoring stations loaded with carefully calibrated gear need to be transported to remote spots in the bush, provincial and federal researchers have had to get together to ensure they were taking the same measurements in the same way.
"The type of information we needed, we needed to have a much more integrated and co-ordinated approach," said Wrona.
He acknowledged that it'll be tough to establish an environmental baseline for the area, given more than a decade's worth of intensive development. But he said an idea of what's ecologically normal can be constructed by using old monitoring data and information from environmentally similar sites that remain relatively untouched.
Crucial decisions on how improved monitoring will be governed remain unanswered, especially on how independent any agency will remain from government.
"I've said it (will be) arm's length, and independent and credible, with peer review," said McQueen. "We agree on that. It's how do we roll that out?"
McQueen is currently reviewing recommendations on how that program should be governed. She said those suggestions as well as her response will be released over the coming weeks.
"I prefer an external, arm's-length (governance), so that we do have the independence," McQueen said. "It's very important for us in Alberta and nationally, but also internationally, that the credibility piece is there."
Kent promised the data would be publicly available.
"There will be absolute transparency," he said. "We will seek peer review on a regular basis."
Kent and McQueen announced a radically revamped oilsands monitoring plan in February. Criticism from scientists and others that the provincial government was doing a poor job of overseeing environmental changes caused by oilsands development has been affecting the province's attempts to increase its energy exports.
Ultimately, the three-year plan aims to increase the number of monitoring sites by more than 50 per cent. The new approach includes looking for hazardous chemicals ignored under the old plan.
Eventually, monitors are also to examine biodiversity, animal toxicity, plant health and habitat disruption.
Both Kent and McQueen said they have broad support from industry on funding the monitoring program, although final arrangements are still being discussed. This year's efforts are being funded by government.
Who pays for what is expected to be finalized by the end of the summer, said McQueen.
Jennifer Grant of the Pembina Institute welcomed the progress made on improving oilsands monitoring.
"Seeing tangible, on-the-ground improvements is positive and we look forward to similar progress implementing an independent governance system with enhanced inclusivity and a sustainable, long-term funding model."
But she cautioned that governments still need to establish environmental limits for the region, as well as complete a land-use plan.
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