Alberta gets tough after screwing up oilsands protection

Alberta gets tough after screwing up oilsands protection by Don Braid, October 17, 2012, Calgary Herald
Whenever something as big and expensive as a new provincewide, all-embracing environmental agency comes along, the wise sleuth looks for a power struggle. And it was evident Wednesday in the surprisingly forceful words of Dr. Howard Tennant, who will head up the first phase of this ambitious agency’s growth. At an Edmonton press conference to announce the new Alberta Environmental Monitoring Agency, Tennant got down to it. Referring to the federal government, he said, “the way I see it, they’re not running Alberta. “This is Alberta, it’s our resources [soon to be China’s], it’s our responsibility to do this monitoring.” Ottawa’s role, he suggested, should be limited to performing contract work for the monitoring agency. Where Ottawa has significant expertise, Tennant went on, “We’d be fools not to use them and welcome them here.” But they’ll be subcontractors, like the guy who tiles your bathroom. Alberta would run the job and check the grouting. You can hear an echo of the late Premier Peter Lougheed, who so famously said of the feds: “We moved them from the living room to the porch and I’m beginning to think we move them off the property.”

This new agency is the latest thump in the backroom fight that started during the Stelmach era, when environmentalists succeeded in demonizing the oilsands with plenty of witless provincial co-operation. Two studies found that oilsands monitoring was severely substandard despite years of provincial assurances that everything was top-notch. Sensing both need and opportunity, Ottawa moved in. The Alberta PCs had little choice but to sign a three-year “Joint Canada-Alberta Implementation Plan for Oil Sands Monitoring.” Now Alberta signals that this is temporary. After that deal expires, says the full monitoring agency report, any subsequent agreements “would enable the AEM system to manage all environmental monitoring programs in the Lower Athabasca Region.” From one perspective, this tough attitude is welcome. It’s unwise to count on the feds for regulation — just ask the slaughterhouse workers in Brooks, who are laid off because 46 full-time federal inspectors failed to detect tainted beef in the plant.

But from another angle, the whole business is infuriating. It’s happening only because the province screwed up environmental protection so badly that oilsands development was seriously threatened. Now we will all pay a huge price for this provincial effort to save the ‘sands and hold off the feds. After starting with the Lower Athabasca area, where $50 million a year is already pledged by the energy industry, the monitoring effort will expand across the province, surveying every hoodoo and duck puddle for signs of taint in air, land and water. As Environment Minister Diana McQueen said, it will be unique in the world. It may also be uniquely expensive. And yet, there is no detail whatever on how an agency with such vast duties will ultimately be funded. Few Albertans will have any problem with better environmental monitoring all over Alberta. We need it badly. And we could get it simply by improving the regional monitoring systems already in place. But the PCs need a gaudy symbol they can wrap in the Alberta flag. And so, a big, government-appointed body is going to assume control of, and greatly expand, an extremely complex provincewide system. If this makes you think of Alberta Health Services, please stop. You could hurt yourself. [Emphasis added]

[Refer also to: Tennant to head enviro monitoring panel ]

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