04/22/2013 02:15 EDT | Updated 06/22/2013 05:12 EDT

Oilsands Data Now Public, But Governments Face Questions About Independence

OTTAWA - Interested Canadians can now freely access environmental data from the oilsands now that the federal and Alberta governments have opened up a data portal to much of their scientists' work.

Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent and his provincial counterpart Diana McQueen officially launched their joint oilsands monitoring data portal on Tuesday in an attempt to win the public's trust for further resource development.

The portal, they said, goes further than any other database in its scope and depth of information about how oilsands development is affecting the area's environment.

But the two governments are already facing questions about how forthcoming the data base will be about troubling aspects of oilsands developments, and what governments will do about environmental problems that could be exposed by the data.

Environmental scientist David Schindler, who has raised alarms about the lack of scientific oversight of the oilsands, says the new data portal has good potential — as long as it remains free of political tinkering.

The University of Alberta professor has been consulted in the development of the monitoring system, and he liked what he saw.

But he is concerned that the control of the research and data remains in the hands of the two governments, and not an independent body — as recommended by a panel of experts convened by the governments to advise them.

If governments filter the data or are not able to fully show that the scientists are collecting the right kinds of information, then the portal won't have much credibility, Schindler warned.

"The portal could be just another propaganda tool," he said in an interview.

So far, the "latest data" section of the portal concludes: "Overall, the levels of contaminants in water and in air are not a cause for concern."

However, the page goes on to state that air samples close to oilsands mines and upgrading facilities had pollution levels twice as high as sites further away, partly because of industrial activity.

Some water samples showed metal concentrations that surpassed federal-provincial guidelines, the portal page says.

Plus, preliminary data examined by Schindler and others have shown that spring run-off from the snowpack was killing fish in some river tributaries, Schindler pointed out.

He said he will be looking for that data in the public version of the database and pass judgment on its transparency accordingly.

The database has been several years in the making, and it will take two more years before it is in full swing, the ministers said. They stressed that the monitoring system would not impose any kind of industrial or political change in behaviour per se, but would serve to influence decisions.

Scientists warned that it will also take them considerable time to assess the new data and figure out whether it is giving them the answers that they need.

Queen's University biologist John Smol, who was on the advisory panel that recommended setting up the oilsands monitoring system, said his lab will be digging into the data to see if it is readily accessible and collected in a sound manner.

Still, he noted that the federal government has a poor record of allowing its scientists to speak with impunity, and has lost a lot of the public's trust in the process.

He said the governments have assigned strong scientists to the monitoring system, but he, too, would have preferred to see independent oversight.

"They've had credibility issues," Smol said.

Environmental credibility is crucial for the two governments as they seek U.S. approval for the Keystone pipeline through the United States and eye other pipelines across Canada to export Alberta's bitumen.

The two ministers chose to launch the portal on Earth Day in an effort to show they are being proactive.

For its part, the opposition NDP marked the day by introducing 10 private members' bills that would restore federal protection of some of Canada's heritage rivers under the Navigable Waters Act.

And normally staid Gov. Gen. David Johnston had some pointed Earth Day words for all Canadians.

"We live in a symbiotic relationship with our planet, dependent on its resources for sustenance, shelter and wealth. The well-being both of our planet and of humankind rests on the delicate balance of the earth's ecosystems," Johnston said in a statement.

"Only by promoting sustainability will we be able to face the challenges ahead as both our global civilization and our planet grow older. In other words, let us aspire to be curators rather than plunderers of this earth. Our children will thank us for it."

Johnston is a former head of the now-defunct National Roundtable of the Environment and the Economy, which lost its federal funding last year.

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