On July 21, 2011, the Federal Government released the Integrated Oil Sands Environmental Monitoring Plan (the “Plan”), an integrated monitoring plan for Alberta’s oilsands region. The Government of Canada coordinated the development of the Plan in collaboration with provincial, territorial and academic scientists. The Government of Alberta will work with the Federal Government to implement the Plan.
The Plan was developed to address deficiencies in the current environmental monitoring program in the oilsands region. The Plan is intended to provide the scientific foundation necessary to give government agencies and industry the information needed to manage cumulative effects and to ensure the environmentally sustainable development of this important resource. The Plan is designed to be: holistic, comprehensive, scientifically rigorous, adaptive, collaborative, transparent, and accessible. This approach shifts the focus from assessing effects on a project-by-project basis, to an integrated assessment of key areas of concern on a regional basis.
The four core components of the Plan are:
- Water Quality Monitoring (Phase 1 ‐ Athabasca River Mainstem and Tributaries) (released March 2011 – Environment Canada and Alberta Environment);
- Expanded Geographical Extent for Water Quality and Quantity, Aquatic Biodiversity and Effects, and Acid Sensitive Lakes Monitoring;
- Air Quality Monitoring;
- Terrestrial Biodiversity and Habitat Monitoring.
The Plan includes a series of decision ‘triggers’ which determine the frequency, and the geographic scope of sampling to be undertaken. This adaptive feature is intended to increase effectiveness and efficiency of the monitoring regime, such that monitoring may be increased if important changes are detected at a given site, or alternatively, reduced at sites where monitoring indicates that no significant changes are occurring.
The Plan is a series of technical documents that present what, where, when and how monitoring should be undertaken. The Plan does not provide a timeline for implementation, and does not address implementation considerations such as funding, or roles and responsibilities of existing organizations and institutions. New legislation will likely be passed to solidify the obligations of government, industry, and other institutions.
All information will be available to the public. A data management system is proposed that includes a web-based portal where information can be uploaded, organized and accessed in a standardized, transparent, and timely manner. The data management system is intended to enable concerned parties to access relevant data, conduct their own analyses, and draw their own conclusions. Plain language publications and peer reviewed reports are also to be produced under the Plan and will be available to the public.
It is unclear at this time exactly how the Plan will impact current and future oilsands operations. It is possible that new regulations will be passed requiring more stringent monitoring programs to be undertaken by industry. However, the distribution of monitoring responsibilities between industry and government has not been specified. It also remains to be seen how the new monitoring requirements will be enforced and what penalties will be associated with non-compliance.
Detailed descriptions of plan components are available on Environment Canada’s website.