10/17/2012 04:34 EDT | Updated 12/17/2012 05:12 EST

Alberta Environmental Watchdog: Government Panel Proposes Independent Body

EDMONTON - The Alberta government will set up an arm's-length watchdog agency to monitor the effects of industrial development on the province's environment.

The agency will set its own agenda and be empowered to decide for itself what information to release to the public, Environment Minister Diana McQueen said Wednesday at a news conference.

Although there is no price tag as yet on a provincewide system of monitoring, it will likely be funded by both industry levies and general taxation.

"Alberta is on the cusp of what I believe is a game-changer in environmental monitoring, evaluation and reporting," McQueen said as she announced the creation of the Alberta Environmental Management Agency. "This new agency will take us to a new level."

The agency is to be the final fruit of a process that began about two years ago when scientific and public criticism forced the province to revamp how it tracks the impact its booming resource-based economy has on its environment. A report delivered to the government June 20, also released Wednesday, made recommendations on how scientifically sound monitoring should be managed.

Howard Tennant, who headed the panel that wrote the report and will now oversee the creation of the new management agency, promised the group would be independent of government. Although it will report to the environment minister, it will decide through a scientific advisory panel what needs to be studied and release its own reports.

"It will be a report that comes to myself but it will be independent, allowing them to do the work they need to do," McQueen said. "We want the credibility ... and we trust this arms-length agency will do that."

Tennant promised the new agency would be transparent and wouldn't run reports past political staff before releasing them.

"When we collect data, the priority will be to release data, interpretations and reports of that data and that will be made available," he said. "If something was to be published, the minister would be advised as to when that would be released."

The agency will ultimately oversee the entire province. The report does not spell out how it should be funded, proposing instead a mix of industry levies and general tax revenues.

"We do not have a preference yet," said McQueen.

McQueen said there's $3 million set aside for the first three years of operations, which she said should give the government time to work out a funding arrangement.

"The important part for me was to put money in my budget so we can get started what needs to be done."

Although Environment Canada is involved in monitoring in the oilsands region, McQueen said the new agency would be entirely run by Alberta. The details of how Ottawa and the province will work together in the oilsands have still to be worked out.

McQueen also said aboriginal groups would be involved in all aspects of the agency's work. Tennant promised his agency would meet with aboriginal leaders from the oilsands region by the end of November.

Provincial New Democrat environment critic Rachel Notley said she still had some concerns about the agency's independence. She said the fact the government sat on the recommendations for almost four months before moving on them doesn't bode well.

"What people were really looking for is the transparency of the science. I see here the opportunity for it to be far too managed and far too massaged before it becomes available to Albertans."

Jennifer Grant of the environmental think-tank the Pembina Institute pointed out that it will be months yet before the agency is running, while major oilsands projects such as Shell's Jackpine proposal go before regulators using data collected under the discredited old system.

"It's important that this work be done right, but what are we doing in the interim?" she asks.

David Pryce of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers said industry welcomes the creation of the new monitoring agency.

He said that talks on what industry's role in funding the new group haven't begun yet. But Pryce said his group believes taxpayers should pay for at least some of its operations.

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