Oil sands monitoring steps laid out by Alberta ENGO

Keys to regaining credibility include establishing baselines, asserting federal leadership, and maintaining scientific independence

The credibility of Alberta's and Canada's attempts to responsibly manage the environmental effects of oil sands development rests on responding to calls for improved monitoring of the Athabasca River. Today Water Matters, an Alberta-based water-policy think-tank, has released Replacing the Oil Sands' Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program (RAMP) with Effective Environmental Monitoring Solutions, providing recommendations for improving freshwater monitoring system between the Government of Canada and the province of Alberta.

Water Matters' report comes after a series of inquiries that called the credibility of RAMP into question. On December 21 2010, the Honourable John Baird, interim Minister of the Environment, promised Canadians that Environment Canada would create a robust water monitoring plan with the Government of Alberta. This commitment came as a result of a number of monitoring reviews, including a report by the federal Oil Sands Advisory Panel, and two studies by Dr. David Schindler and his colleagues that demonstrated significant releases of contaminants into the Lower Athabasca River and surrounding landscapes by oil sands development.

To support these calls for improved monitoring, Water Matters has created Replacing the Oil Sands' Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program (RAMP) with Effective Environmental Monitoring Solutions, which has been submitted to Environment Canada as the government prepares its final technical plan.

"It is clear that existing environmental monitoring systems in the oil sands region lack credibility" says Bill Donahue, Ph.D., the report's author and Water Matter's Policy and Science Advisor, "Aquatic monitoring and research must be scientifically sound to determine the environmental effects of oil sands development, and to ensure that environmental management and development decisions are appropriate."

To ensure this, Water Matters recommends that the Government of Canada lead the development and implementation of robust aquatic monitoring and research programs in the oil sands region. In addition, these programs should be designed, conducted and managed by expert research scientists.

In particular, Donahue points to the need to identify critical environmental baselines and thresholds to support monitoring and assessment of effects of oil sands development on aquatic ecosystem health.

"Without establishing the relevant scientific baselines for the region, monitoring will give us more data, but little direction on how it should be applied," says Donahue.

The Government of Canada also must break its pattern of being missing in action in the oil sands region. According to Donahue, "Environment Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada have the scientific expertise and the analytical capabilities to create and sustain credible and robust monitoring programs in the oil sands region, and have clear legal duties to do so. All we need is a firm, long-term commitment by decision-makers of the necessary resources, which are dwarfed by the economic value of the oil sands as a resource, if developed responsibly."

To this end, Water Matters has created a checklist for decision-makers and average citizens to determine if efforts at refocusing oil sands monitoring are going far enough.

"To avoid the financial and environmental risk associated with irresponsible oil sands development," concludes Donahue, "we hope Albertans and Canadians can use this checklist to hold decision makers accountable for developing robust and credible monitoring plans."   

Read the media backgrounder

Read the full report


Dr. Bill Donahue
Special Policy and Science Advisor
(cell) 780-566-4680
[email protected]