Alberta’s popular Environment and Sustainable Resource Development Minister, Diana McQueen, MLA for Drayton Valley-Devon, made news last month announcing that the government is creating a new, arms-length environmental monitoring body. The Alberta Environment Management Agency will be responsible for keeping watch over air quality issues, ground and surface water health, as well as monitoring of lands, forests and wildlife.
"Alberta is on the cusp of what I believe is a game-changer in environmental monitoring, evaluation and reporting," McQueen was quoted as saying in a number of international media reports, including The Huffington Post, Reuters, United Press International, as well as local media sources like the Edmonton Journal.
“When it comes to resource management and the environment, Alberta recognizes the status quo is simply not enough to meet the challenges we face,” asserted Minister McQueen.
“This will be a system like no other in Canada and, indeed, around the world, and it needs to be. We will continue to demonstrate to Albertans, Canadians and the world that we can and will develop our natural resources in a responsible and sustainable way.”
The new watchdog panel was established in response to a recommendation in a report from a six-person task force led by former University of Lethbridge president, Dr. Howard Tennant. The group has been studying the nuts and bolts of how to bring best practices to environmental monitoring, not just for the oil sands areas but across the province. Besides Dr. Tennant, the task force established in March of this year includes the following members:
- Businessman, Hal Kvisle, past president of TransCanada Corporation,
– Lawyer Neil McCrank, former chair of the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board,
– Professor Gregory Taylor, Dean of Science at the University of Alberta,
-Ecologist Ron Wallace, one time Senior Biologist with Environment Canada’s Environmental Protection Service in Yellowknife, and
- Deputy Environment Minister Ernie Hui, an Alberta Environment staffer who has worked within the department since 1989.
Some opposition parties did have concerns regarding the make-up of the board and the reason for the body’s establishment. Liberal MLA, Laurie Blakeman, for example, claimed the monitoring body is simply a delaying tactic and felt some of the members of the group were too closely affiliated with the government to be as “arms- length” as it would need to be to succeed. NDP energy critic Rachel Notley also weighed in on the initiative with a cautionary statement.
“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." Notley warned in the HP piece.
Tennant provided assurances of transparency, however, and stated he had no intention of gaining governmental approval prior to publishing the findings of the monitoring body.
"When we collect data, the priority will be to release data, interpretations and reports of that data and that will be made available," he underlined. "If something was to be published, the minister would be advised as to when that would be released."
Reacting to the Minister McQueen’s announcement, oil sands expert Jennifer Grant of the environmental think-tank, The Pembina Institute, was clear about the importance of impartiality of the board.
“A monitoring system is a foundational element of any environmental management system, and if it is independently governed, it will greatly increase the credibility of the program,” Ms.Grant said in response to the initiative. “In the case of the oilsands, it will help restore trust of the people directly affected by the resource and also by the Canadian and international community.”
According to Dr. Tennant, the body will certainly be conducting oil sands related monitoring but there is a much wider focus to the board than just the environmental impact of the energy sector.
“Where does pollution come from? It comes from you and I. All of a sudden we’re getting well over three million people concentrated in cities on fragile water systems,” he said.
Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, David Pryce, was upbeat about the potential of the monitoring program and intimated the energy sector will be supportive of the initiative monetarily, as long as governments also pay their share. Having the costs divided between competing players was part of the recommendations of Tennant’s report.
Dr. Tennant made the case that the integrity of the information produced by the monitoring agency will be of paramount importance if they wish to provide a balanced look at an extremely politicized issue. He did not demonize the federal government’s withdrawal of monitoring services specified in the environmental department’s recent funding cuts.
“The way I see it, they’re not running Alberta,” Dr. Tennant pointed out. “This is Alberta, it’s our resources, its our responsibility to do this monitoring.”