On October 17, Alberta Minister of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development Diana McQueen announced that the government of that province will be setting up a new environmental monitoring agency, with the aim of establishing the most comprehensive program of its kind in Canada. The agency, which has been tentatively named the “Alberta Environmental Monitoring Agency,” will monitor long-term environmental impacts on land, air, water and biodiversity. It will initially focus on the oil sands regions, but it is expected to monitor the whole province within the next couple of years. The establishment of this agency is part of a more integrated and coordinated approach to natural resources management in Alberta and will be focusing on research, science and data collection. The government plans to have the agency up and running within the next six months.

The agency is expected to cost $4-6 million for its first two years but it is yet to be decided whether, and to what extent, it will be funded by industry levies, environmental taxes or general government revenues. The agency will be overseen by a management board headed by Howard Tennant, a former president and vice-chancellor of the University of Lethbridge. Dr. Tennant supports funding by both industry and the public. So far, the government has set aside $3 million for the first three years of activity.

Criticisms directed at the initiative by environmental groups have focused on whether or not the agency will be truly independent, as it will function as an extension of the provincial government, reporting to the environment minister. Questions have been raised as to whether reports and data that are made public will be reliable and unedited. Dr. Tennant has, however, promised that the published information will be transparent and that it will not be reviewed by politicians before it is released to the public.

The agency is being set up as a response to recommendations made in a report from the Alberta Environmental Monitoring Working Group that was published June 2012. That report concluded that a monitoring system was needed in order to improve the scientific understanding of environmental effects in Alberta and to assist members of government, investors and industry in their decision-making.

The Alberta Government is taking steps towards a more uniform and comprehensive approach to environmental monitoring by establishing a single agency to monitor impacts on the environment as a whole. This allows for cumulative impacts to be taken into account, as these can improve the understanding and management of environmental impacts from a sustainable and long-term perspective. As the agency is to be at arm’s length to the government, it will have a degree of independence, which is likely to strengthen its transparency and credibility.

It will however take some time before the agency is fully set up to initiate any monitoring activities. Also, the system’s success will be dependent on sufficient funding. For this reason, it will be crucial for the government to decide upon and adopt a clear and coherent plan for the agency’s long-term finances.