Alberta takes step toward improved environmental monitoring, but questions remain

Alberta takes step toward improved environmental monitoring, but questions remain by Keith Gerein, October 17, 2012, Edmonton Journal
EDMONTON – The Alberta government is set to install a new guardian for its air, water, land and wildlife by creating an “arm’s length” organization to take control of environmental monitoring across the province. While critics warned there are still too few details on how the Alberta Environment Management Agency will operate, Environment Minister Diana McQueen vowed Wednesday the new entity will help to convince the world that the “most scientifically credible monitoring system in the world” is in Alberta.

The creation of such an agency was one of the key recommendations in a report delivered to McQueen in June by a working group led by former University of Lethbridge president Howard Tennant. The report was made public for the first time Wednesday, along with the province’s response. In 2011, Tennant was part of an expert panel that first called for the government to create a “science-driven, arm’s-length and operationally excellent” independent commission to oversee monitoring. That led to his appointment with the working group, and he has now been chosen to head a management board responsible for setting up the new agency. While McQueen said she hopes the agency can be ready in six to eight months, Tennant said it could actually be two to three years. The working group report suggested five years might be needed before the agency is up to full capacity.

One of the main jobs of Tennant’s board will be to figure out a funding model. The report unveiled Wednesday offered no firm proposals but suggested a variety of ways money could be generated, including some kind of environmental tax that could be applied to all Albertans. This could take the form of a fuel tax or even a “a tax on all consumption of hydrocarbons,” the report said. Other ideas include finding the money within the province’s general revenue stream, or making industry pay based on the volume of greenhouse gases they emit or how much water they use. Tennant said he supports a combination of funding sources from both industry and the public. He said since everyone pollutes and everyone benefits from a clean environment, everyone should help pay. “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. “It’s pretty clear that funding is going to be one of the issues, and one of the things we will struggle with.”

The agency will focus its initial efforts on monitoring in the oilsands region, where there is the most scrutiny on the province. Industry has already committed to providing up to $50 million a year for three years to do that work in the oilsands, but it’s unclear if that funding will continue long term. Once the oilsands monitoring is under control, the agency will expand to the rest of the province, McQueen said. She said it’s still unclear how much it all might cost. … Compliance monitoring, which looks at whether companies are meeting environmental and remediation targets as part of their project approvals, will continue to be handled by the province.

NDP critic Rachel Notley said the government has not been clear on how the agency’s reports and raw data will be made public, which suggests it may not be truly independent. “I see here the opportunity for it to be far too managed and far too massaged before it becomes available to Albertans.”
 [Emphasis added]

[Refer also to: Tennant to head enviro monitoring panel 

Alberta gets tough after screwing up oilsands protection ]

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