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Alberta wrestles with nature of oil sands monitoring

New Minister of Environment and Water, Diana McQueen pictured at the Alberta Government House in Edmonton, October 12, 2011. She was sworn-into her new position today.

jason franson The Globe and Mail

The Alberta government is wavering on whether new land, water and air monitoring in the oil sands will be fully independent, one of a series of questions the province faces as it overhauls its environment strategy amid mounting public scrutiny.

One of Premier Alison Redford's first major initiatives was to boost environmental oversight in the booming sector. Several reviews showed the existing system was subpar, and the new, robust monitoring system was designed to quell critics' complaints.

Run jointly with Ottawa, it would increase pollution testing throughout the region. Many external scientists applauded the plan, but stressed it had to be independent when implemented.

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Now, a picture of the system is beginning to emerge. Yet another external panel, at the province's request, will next month present two visions for how it could run: one fully independent, and one run by government using work by independent scientists.

Environment Minister Diana McQueen doesn't have a preference. "What I've said right from the start is that the science has to be independent," she said. Ms. Redford couldn't explain why the province was considering anything other than a fully independent model.

Others say there's no question – allowing any government control is "giving only the pretense of being independent," University of Alberta biologist David Schindler said by e-mail. One of his studies showed elevated, although still low, levels of toxic elements in a major oil sands river.

It's up to Ms. McQueen to ensure a new system is independent, he said. "Will she stand up to a money and energy crazed cabinet, and a bureaucracy largely trained by the political dinosaurs that we now hope are gone?"

Joe Anglin, the environment critic for the opposition Wildrose Party, shares fears of a government-run system. "It's sort of like opening a cookie jar for a three-year-old. I mean, it's just there."

Facing opposition over proposed pipeline projects, Ms. Redford has also moved to boost perceptions of Alberta's environmental performance.

She has twice overhauled branding of her environment ministry – first calling it "Environment and Water" and, this month, changing it to "Environment and Sustainable Resource Development," rolling in a ministry previously in charge of sectors such as forestry.

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Ms. McQueen will lead a delegation at next month's United Nations sustainability summit in Brazil.

Branding issues aside, the province faces a series of fundamental questions on the environment file and, despite promises of change, much remains the same.

Its 2008 climate change strategy, for instance, is based largely on carbon capture and storage, which the province has poured $2-billion into, but one major project collapsed last month. Companies said it wasn't financially viable, one factor being Alberta's carbon tax, at $15 a tonne, is too low. It's cheaper to pollute and pay the tax than cut emissions.

A higher carbon tax would encourage carbon capture, but cost businesses more. Ms. McQueen won't raise it. "We're not going to put our industries in a position where they can't be competitive."

Within her department, the former deputy minister has been appointed "chief executive officer, environmental monitoring." A spokesman dismissed suggestions that's in preparation for a government-run monitoring program. The department is also hiring a new director for the 16-staff-member climate change team. The job posting says an ability to "manage politically sensitive issues" is an asset.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Josh is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. Before moving to the nation's capital in 2013, he covered provincial affairs in Edmonton and throughout Alberta. He joined the Globe in 2008 in Toronto before returning to his home province in 2010. More

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