Canada: Joint Canada-Alberta Oil Sands Monitoring Plan: Designed By Government, Funded By Industry

Copyright 2012, Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP

Originally published in Blakes Bulletin on Energy–Regulatory/Environmental, February 2012

On February 3, 2012, the governments of Canada and Alberta released the Joint Canada-Alberta Implementation Plan for Oil Sands Monitoring (the Plan). The Plan was developed by scientists from both governments and establishes a comprehensive program to improve environmental monitoring for water, air, land and biodiversity in the oil sands region in order to better understand potential long-term cumulative effects.

What is the Plan?

The primary goal of the Plan is to develop a comprehensive monitoring program that will improve the understanding of long-term cumulative effects in the Alberta oil sands region to ensure continued development in an environmentally responsible manner. Additional objectives of the Plan include support for government and stakeholder decision-making, data transparency, enhanced monitoring and improved analysis of monitoring data.

The Plan will strengthen existing oil sands monitoring activities by increasing the number and area of sites and types of substances monitored through a phased and adaptive approach. It will yield a data management framework that will be publicly available and enable concerned parties to conduct their own data analyses and draw their own conclusions. Increased monitoring of the following environmental components is contemplated by the Plan:

  • air quality
  • acid sensitive lakes and accumulated aerial deposition
  • water quantity/quality
  • aquatic ecosystem health
  • wildlife toxicity
  • terrestrial biodiversity and habitat disturbance.

The Plan will be consistent with existing federal and provincial programs, including AnIntegrated Oil Sands Environment Monitoring Plan released by Environment Canada in July 2011 and Alberta's recent land use planning framework and cumulative effects management plan.

Implementation of the Plan

Beginning in the spring of 2012, the governments of Canada and Alberta will implement the Plan, which will initially occur over a three-year period. Assistant deputy ministers of Environment Canada and Alberta Environment and Water will work together and with other federal and provincial government departments responsible for the matters impacted by the Plan.

The Plan entails incorporating the numerous existing monitoring arrangements presently being undertaken by a variety of groups and governments and integrating them into a single government-led program. The sampling frequency, parameters measured and sample locations will all be increased relative to the existing monitoring programs. Expansion and adaptation of monitoring programs will take place over the final two years of the Plan. By the end of the initial three-year period, as compared to the existing monitoring programs, it is anticipated that the number and area of sampling sites will be higher, the number and types of parameters sampled will be increased, the frequency of sampling will be increased, the methodologies for air and water monitoring will be improved and a transparent data management program will be in place.

Administration and Review of the Plan

Early in the process, the two governments will engage industry, independent scientists, Aboriginal Peoples and other stakeholders regarding the content of the Plan. Monitoring in the oil sands will be managed adaptively, with plans and activities reviewed at regular intervals and adjusted, where appropriate, to reflect experience and discussions with stakeholders.

The Plan incorporates various means of oversight and review, including annual public progress reports for the first three years on the status of implementation. External peer review of the monitoring system after year three and every five years thereafter will occur to ensure scientific integrity.

Potential Impact of the Plan

The Plan represents the recognition by the governments of Canada and Alberta that existing oil sands monitoring programs are incomplete and do not sufficiently measure long-term cumulative environmental effects of oil sands development. The increased focus on comprehensive, scientific and transparent monitoring is a laudable goal. As noted in the Plan, once implemented it "will be a world-leading program, fully integrated into national and provincial monitoring systems, providing reliable data on environmental conditions in the oil sands area".

How Will the Plan Be Funded?

During the first three years of the Plan, the total costs of implementation and monitoring are estimated to be up to C$50-million per year. Costs in subsequent years are anticipated to decrease as a result of improved knowledge and refinements to the Plan.

Notwithstanding that the governments of Alberta and Canada have designed the Plan, all costs are anticipated to be funded by industry. Although the governments of Canada and Alberta intend to work with the oil sands industry to develop a sustainable, ongoing funding arrangement, the Plan neither explains how the costs will be allocated as between existing and future oil sands operations, nor exactly what involvement or input industry may have in designing or implementing the Plan. With an annual price tag of C$50-million, one would have expected those issues to have been clarified. Absent any apparent vested interest in responsibility for the costs of any monitoring program, it is also unclear what constraints will be placed on the governments of Alberta and Canada to ensure that the monitoring is undertaken in a cost-effective and efficient manner, especially where the Plan is predicated upon an adaptive approach and is expected to change over time. The interplay between the funding of the Plan by industry with no definitive input into its design, versus the ongoing design of the Plan by government with no apparent vested interest in its funding, may well be the most interesting aspect of the Plan as it unfolds.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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