Scientists’ optimism a ray of light under Alberta Legislature dome, but Graham Thomson doubts Competent Environmental Monitoring will begin

Thomson: Scientists’ optimism a ray of light under the dome by Graham Thomson, November 5, 2012, Edmonton Journal
It is business as usual under the sheathed dome of the Alberta legislature, except that two scientists are optimistic about the government’s new environmental monitoring agency. If you’ve been anywhere near downtown Edmonton recently, you have noticed the Alberta legislature is looking decidedly odd. Workers refurbishing the building have covered the iconic dome in scaffolding and then wrapped everything in white plastic to protect the work site from the elements. The legislature looks less like a capitol and more like a giant ice cream cone or maybe a rocket ship. Or, depending on where your mind tends to wander when you think of politicians, it also resembles the world’s largest condom. But let me assure you that no matter how different the legislature looks on the outside, it’s business as usual inside.

Despite promises made by all parties to raise the level of decorum during question period, debates have degenerated into angry finger pointing and name-calling. Wildrose MLA Bruce McAllister was forced to offer an apology after saying, in the heat of the moment, that the initials of the Progressive Conservatives should stand for “pathetically cowardly.” The government, for its part, has been openly contemptuous of the opposition, ignoring questions on the one hand while mocking the opposition’s ability, or inability, to raise campaign contributions on the other. It would be naive to expect the opposition to back down or to expect the government to suddenly start answering embarrassing questions. And it would be downright boring if they actually started to listen to Speaker Gene Zwozdesky’s pleas for restraint. Yet, a daily diet of overwrought language from the opposition followed by dismissive responses from the government does tend to give one a bad case of democratic indigestion. So, allow me to offer something of a democratic antacid, if you will. This restorative comes from an independent scientist who has worked with the Alberta government and thinks it is doing something notable and noble on the environmental front.

Andrew Miall is a geology professor at the University of Toronto who also served as president of the Academy of Science of the Royal Society of Canada. In 2010, he was a member of the federal Oilsands Advisory Panel and in 2011 was a member of the Alberta Environmental Monitoring Panel. It was the conclusion of Miall and his colleagues that Alberta’s current monitoring system for the oilsands was inadequate and needed to be replaced with a “scientifically rigorous” and independently commissioned monitoring system. Miall is no shrinking violet and is no knee-jerk defender of government. I have known him for several years and in the interest of full disclosure I should point out he was one of the scientists who came to my defence when the Alberta government criticized my 2009 research paper commissioned by the University of Toronto that questioned the value of carbon capture and sequestration to lower the province’s greenhouse gas emissions.

This week Miall is in Alberta for a scientific conference and he contacted me to gently rebuke my criticism last week of the government’s proposal for an “arm’s length” environmental monitoring panel. The panel, announced last month by Environment Minister Diana McQueen, promises a world-class monitoring system to measure and monitor the impact we’re having on the environment with an emphasis on the oilsands. I admit to being a skeptic on the matter, due to the government’s foot-dragging record on the environment and its vague timeline for setting up the panel. But Miall thinks I’m being unfair. “You are quite right to express some cynicism and doubt given the long history on this file but I think we may be seeing something a little different,” says Miall, who believes the government is sincerely trying to improve not only its image on the environment but its performance. He credits a new sense of accountability by the Redford government. “My impression is that the premier herself and minister McQueen have a somewhat different and more open attitude to these sorts of things.”

Miall is obviously an optimist at heart, a scientist who believes government will do the right thing when faced with the facts. And those facts include a report from Environment Canada scientists made public this week that confirms the warnings from University of Alberta aquatics expert David Schindler about the potential negative effects of the oilsands on the environment. In 2010, Schindler concluded that “there’s no way industry can be belching out hundreds of kilograms of toxins every year and this not be detectable in the environment unless the monitoring program is totally incompetent.” Like Miall, Schindler is no apologist for government and, like Miall, Schindler has expressed optimism about the government’s new independent monitoring agency. “From my experiences over the years, I am sure that Minister McQueen had to persuade some pretty recalcitrant people to get this through,” said Schindler in an email that largely praises the government’s efforts. “She should be congratulated!” I admit to being impressed by the scientists’ optimism. But I also admit to being a skeptic that anything will truly change. The federal and provincial governments, for example, continue to review and approve major oilsands expansions using outdated, inadequate monitoring systems. Schindler and Miall look forward to government proving them right. I’d be just as happy to have government prove me wrong. [Emphasis added]

[Refer also to:

Ernst Letter to Alberta Premier Alison Redford, June 13, 2012: To Smoke or Not to Smoke and supporting documents, excerpts included below:

Since those damning findings, EnCana refuses to test for metals and only offers testing before CBM above the Base of Groundwater Protection instead of before all energy wells, deep and shallow. This is an irresponsible and dramatic reduction in water testing at a time when companies and our regulators know that cumulative risks are exponentially increasing. … Since 2006, when water testing for shallow coalbed methane (CBM) was finally mandated by the Alberta government – 6 years too late for my community’s aquifers – EnCana has been pulling out all the stops to avoid real baseline water testing. Over the years, I repeatedly wrote EnCana that I accept their offers to appropriately test my water (EnCana recently did nearby fracs above the Base of Groundwater Protection without complying with the Standard). And I repeatedly wrote Alberta Government Ministers, Alberta Environment, the ERCB and Premiers, documenting evidence of EnCana’s non-compliance.

I again accept in writing appropriate baseline testing of my well water, which has become too dangerous to have connected to my home, as I have repeatedly accepted since 2006 when EnCana provided me their first non-compliant offer (attached). I repeat my request that EnCana appropriately – without lies and deflection – address my concerns and answer my questions about the company secretly and illegally diverting fresh water from CBM in my community without the required permit under the Water Act, and illegally fracturing the aquifers that supply my well and others in my community while publicly promising the company would never to do such a dreadful thing.

EnCana has an Alberta CBM technical briefing where they state that if water supply is a concern in their CBM fields, they will supply water. Alberta Environment’s Water Diversion Guidelines for CBM states that all allegations of water problems must be resolved by the company. EnCana lied, the government lied and I continue to live without safe water. (I’ve been hauling alternate water on my own, since April 2008.) Regardless of EnCana’s illegal activities, the regulators continue to allow EnCana to frac above the Base of Groundwater Protection near my water well. Last year, I observed and photographed an EnCana worker pumping a flammable substance into a shallow CBM well. EnCana did not comply with the Baseline Water Testing Standard or Directive 027. EnCana refuses to disclose the toxic chemicals injected above the Base of Groundwater Protection in my community, and still the regulators and Alberta government refuse to compel EnCana to do so. There is no job in Alberta, not even the Premier’s, worth intentionally putting at risk a community’s life-source. Reportedly, some toxics used in drilling and fracturing are more harmful to bathe in, than ingest, and to my knowledge, there are no studies on the health impacts of breathing methane, ethane, and other hydrocarbons ferociously venting from water taps.

I eagerly a wait appropriate baseline testing of my water well, most especially before EnCana’s frac experiments were initiated in 2001. I believe that respectful, truthful and non-deflective answers to my questions I’ve patiently sent and resent to EnCana, government and the regulators since 2004, should be forthcoming. … Premier Redford, has anyone in your government calculated what it will cost our healthcare system as masses of toxic chemicals – the same ones the tobacco companies use – endocrine disruptors, neurotoxins, carcinogens, with the added bonus of radioactive materials – are unleashed, trucked, spilled, dumped, blown-out and injected, with your blessings and incentives, day after day into our communities and families? How many billion will it cost to clean up and fix the many “crimes against humanity” fracs into Alberta’s fresh ground water and make industry’s methane migration stop? (The media reported EnCana Regulatory and Land Advisor Brenda Linster saying that “as a good neighbor, the company would return the water to its pre-drilling condition if need be.” My water obviously needs to be returned to its pre-drilling condition but instead of fixing it, EnCana continues to drill and frac and drill and frac near my well)

I can’t remember the last time I saw a 4-year-old light up. These days society and health professionals frown on that and if parents allowed their toddlers to smoke, they probably wouldn’t be under their protection for long. Fortunately, it seems most parents take the responsibility and right to protect their children seriously. Unfortunately, as your government bows down to frac’ing and an industry intent on profit and keeping their chemicals secret, you have stripped parents of their rights to protect their children and themselves. You are effectively depositing packs of cigarettes and worse into the mouths of every family and 4-year-old in this province daring to live. Will your government provide a hotline for toddlers that have had enough and are looking to quit? Will you visit the homes of sick kids and explain to them why it’s more important to protect a company’s toxic secrets, than to protect them?

10 Billion, that’s a big number for something we have a choice in. What do you suppose the number will be for something we don’t? [Emphasis added]

Premier Alison Redford’s reply on July 28, 2012, via Energy Minister Ken Hughes (past Board Chair of Alberta Health Services):

Dear Ms. Ernst 

Premier Alison Redford has forwarded your letter of June 13, 2012 regarding EnCana. Premier Redford has reviewed your concerns and has asked me to respond on behalf of the Government of Alberta. 

In this particular circumstance, the matters you raise in your letter are ones you have brought before the Provincial Court of Alberta. In that circumstance, we must allow the Court to adjudicate over them. Accordingly, it would be inappropriate for me, on behalf of the Government of Alberta, to comment on those matters given that the action you have commenced against Alberta relates to these very issues. 

Your concerns are that EnCana Corporation has imposed a deadline within which it required your confirmation that you wished to have your water well tested. Without commenting on whether the 10 day deadline imposed by EnCana is reasonable in the circumstances, I am told that Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) Directive 035 does not prohibit companies from imposing a timeframe within which a landowner must indicate whether he or she wishes to have a water well tested. 

Your concerns also relate to the conduct of EnCana. If you have not done so already, I would encourage you to raise your concerns directly with EnCana. 

Thank you for making us aware of your concerns. 


Ken Hughes

Minister of Energy

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