Friday August 01, 2014

Alberta launching arm’s length environmental monitoring agency

Suncor Energy Photo

The initial focus of Alberta’s new arm’s-length environmental monitoring agency will be the Lower Athabasca region and its oil sands industry

The Province of Alberta announced on October 17 that they are moving forward on recommendations from the Working Group on Environmental Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting to create an arm’s-length environmental monitoring agency for the province.

The recommendations were part of a report issued by the Working Group in June and the Alberta government expects to have the agency in place within a year.

“It’s a pretty significant shift. We want to ensure that it’s being done correctly,” said Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD) spokesperson Jessica Potter.

“One of the most important things is to have a scientifically rigorous and credible oversight,” she added.

“It’s one of the foundational pieces for an integrated resource management system that’s effective and sustainable. You need to have that monitoring foundation in place so you know what’s happening. It’s going to ensure that we know if we’re achieving our environmental outcomes.

“You’ve got monitoring, scientific evaluation and transparent reporting.”

The development of the agency is now in the hands of a six-member management board led by Dr. Howard Tennant, who was also part of the Working Group.

“Arm’s-length oversight is an essential component of comprehensive, adaptive and effective environmental monitoring,” Tennant said in an Alberta Government news release.

The primary focus of the management board is around funding and operations, as well as building a Science Advisory Board to help guide environmental monitoring efforts.

Initially, the work of the monitoring agency will be concentrated on the Lower Athabasca area, which is central to oil sands development and the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan that was released in August.

That plan protects 1.6 million hectares of land in northern Alberta, including 341,000 hectares previously slated for development by oil companies that had acquired access to those potential oil reserves for a total of $29 million.

Potter explained that the environmental monitoring agency will be integrated with the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan and the hotly debated Responsible Energy Development Act – also known as Bill 2 – that would create a single window regulator for the oil and gas industry in the province.

“It’s going to take all the regulatory agencies and put them under one umbrella,” said Potter.

“So, now it’s not a matter of looking at things sector by sector,” she added. “It’s a much more holistic approach to looking at how we manage all the resources.”

However, Bill 2 isn’t particularly popular among lawyers, landowners and members of the Wildrose Party in Alberta who believe that the legislation would put too much power in the hands of the regulator and compromise landowners’ ability to exercise their rights as property owners when resource development is involved.

That is why Alberta Energy Minister Ken Hughes began a speaking tour in the middle of November to discuss Bill 2 and recent amendments to the legislation with farmers and ranchers.

It is also why as many as thirty MLAs were still debating those amendments at 4:00 a.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 21 after an all night session.

The bill and its amendments passed third reading that afternoon, but it remains a bone of contention for the Wildrose.

“This is sloppy lawmaking and is a piece of legislation that may result in widespread backlash to this government,” said Wildrose leader Danielle Smith.

“The Responsible Energy Development Act achieves the right balance -- it improves the participation rights of landowners, it provides regulatory certainty for energy companies and it upholds our longstanding commitment to the environment,” said Hughes.

Regardless, feedback about the monitoring agency has been positive.

“We’ve had support from everyone. That includes some of our critics,” said Potter.

“Some of the people … who have pointed out deficiencies or room for improvement, they’ve been very supportive of this move. They’ve been asking for an arm’s-length agency for a while,” she added.

“Providing scientifically-credible information through an independent body is fundamentally important to excellence in resource management,” said Kirk Andries, executive director of the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute.

“We are looking forward to working with the Management Board to contribute to the development a fully integrated, multi-media based environmental monitoring system.”

The energy sector is also onboard.

“CAPP (Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers) supports the establishment of the provincial monitoring agency,” said CAPP vice-president David Pryce.

“This is an important mechanism to further the implementation of scientifically credible monitoring which can be used to confirm and assure responsible development.”

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