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Oil Sands Advisory Panels

Professor Andrew Miall was appointed to the Federal Oil Sands Advisory Panel in October 2010, and to the Alberta Environmental Monitoring Panel in January 2011.

The oil sands: a new regime of environmental management?

Andrew D. Miall, FRSC

Professor of Geology,

University of Toronto


Nearly two years ago (during the summer of 2010) politicians and the general public in the United States were making critical remarks about “Canada’s dirty oil.” David Schindler, FRSC, the respected environmental scientist at the University of Alberta published the second of two papers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science with his colleague Erin Kelly (at that time working as a PDF with Schindler) showing that government-sponsored environmental monitoring data were inadequate, and James Cameron the Canadian film director (Titanic, Avatar), visited the oil sands to show his concern, and was received respectfully by the Alberta Government. There was widespread alarm at the perceived threats to Canada’s reputation and possibly to its export market.

Amongst Schindler’s findings was the discovery that significant quantities of polyaromatic compounds and trace metals were accumulating in the snowpack near the processing and upgrading installations, and were being released rapidly into the Athabasca River during the spring melt, at the time fish embryos were developing. These substances could only have been derived by aerial discharge from the nearby upgraders. This mode of pollution had been entirely missed by the Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program (RAMP), the independent monitoring organization established by the Alberta government in 1997. RAMP had been subject to two major independent peer reviews in 2004, and again in 2010, and both times had been severely criticized for its poor scientific methods. Schindler suggested that RAMP had not found the pollutants detailed in his studies primarily because of the low detection limits of the contract laboratories employed by RAMP. He also pointed out that RAMP had never thought to sample the snowpack. His press conferences, particularly one he held at the Aboriginal community at Fort Chipewyan, received widespread media coverage. A photograph of him holding up a fish with a tumor that had been caught in the Athabasca River conveyed the serious message about pollution and its implications for the health of the fish on which many of the First Nations communities depend.

The heightened attention to the oil sands in 2010 raised public concern to a new level, and both the federal government and the Alberta government realized that action needed to be taken. A federal Oil Sands Advisory Panel was formed in October 2010. I was one of five scientists that comprised this panel, which was chaired by Elisabeth Dowdeswell, the current President of the Council of Canadian Academies. We reported to the then interim Environment Minister John Baird in December. Baird admitted that governments needed to “up their game” with respect to environmental management of the oil sands. He initiated an intensive examination of the state of air and water quality environmental science in the region by the senior scientists at Environment Canada. Meanwhile, the Alberta Government established its own panel, to review the work of RAMP and to compare it with Schindler’s results, to determine why there were such marked discrepancies between the two sets of studies. Their report was eventually delivered in March 2011 and confirmed everything Schindler had claimed.

An Expert Panel on “The Environmental and Health Impacts of Canada’s Oil Sands Industry had already been established by the RSC in October 2009, under the leadership of Steve Hrudy, FRSC, of University of Alberta, and its final report was released shortly before that of the federal panel, in December 2010. This report has been widely reported and discussed within the RSC and in the media, and is not described here. Its findings formed a very useful support for the recommendations of the federal panel, which were that a better scientific framework was required for the monitoring and management of the oil sands environment. The expert panel report also gave the RSC a visibility in Calgary that it had not had before, and because of its level of scholarship the general impression left with the Calgary petroleum community has been very favourable.

With all this as background, the Alberta Environmental Monitoring Panel (AEMP), appointed by Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner in January 2011, had much to do to come to grips with the magnitude of the environmental problems and to propose solutions. I was honoured to be appointed to this group of twelve citizens representing the scientific, environmental and business communities, and we came together remarkably quickly in our assessment of the problems and the structure of the necessary solution. Visits were made to Fort McMurray, to the oil sands industrial sites, and to the First Nations communities at Fort MacKay and Fort Chipewyan. Public hearings were held and much advice received. The conclusion to all of this is that only an independent, science-based monitoring authority, at arms-length from government and industry, could establish the necessary credibility in gathering data, carrying out analyses and making recommendations regarding local and long-term, cumulative environmental effects. A formal process termed MER: “monitoring, evaluation and reporting,” needs to be initiated in the oil sands area, and the panel recommended a new Environmental Monitoring Commission to carry out this work. The final report containing these recommendations was released by the Minister on July 5th 2011.

Meanwhile scientists from Environment Canada had been working with their counterparts in Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories to develop a fully-fledged science plan to do this work. The completed plan was announced by the current Environment Minister, Peter Kent, on 21st July 2011. At the time it was openly speculated by the Minister that implementation of the plan could cost in the range of $50 million per year.

The final piece of the puzzle was to figure out how the federal government and the Alberta government can bring their ideas, their scientists, and their responsibilities together, to make this project work efficiently. While Alberta owns the resource, and has the responsibility for managing oil sands developments, it has no capacity to carry out credible scientific work on its own behalf. Meanwhile, the federal government has intersecting responsibilities to manage transboundary pollution, to ensure the health of First Nations Communities, and to act as environmental stewards for federal lands, such as Wood Buffalo National Park, and the health of fisheries everywhere. And Environment Canada, despite years of cutbacks, still retains world-class laboratories and institutions fully capable of carrying out the necessary scientific work. This is a jurisdictional challenge. However, both the former Alberta Minister Rob Renner and federal minster Peter Kent were on record as promising action in this area.

The new administration in Alberta, led by Premier Alison Redford and Minister of Environment and Water, Diana McQueen, who took over in October 2011, did not immediately respond officially to the AEMP recommendations for an independent Environmental Monitoring Commission, but remarks made by the latter at press conferences in early November 2011 suggested that they were beginning to move in the right direction. Money should certainly not be the problem. Industry is already spending tens of millions of dollars on environmental monitoring and has indicated that they would be happy to see these funds spent more effectively. Such funds are a drop in the bucket compared to the level of investment in oil sands development, which could reach $10 billion a year over the next decade.

In early December I used a long-standing commitment to the Canadian Society of Petroleum Geologists to present a noon luncheon address to the membership on “Environmental Management of the Alberta Oil Sands: Recent Federal and Provincial Initiatives.” About 1000 usually attend these events, and so it was an important opportunity to brief the Calgary petroleum community and enlist their support. As was reported in Calgary’s “Daily Oil Bulletin” the next day, I said “Alberta's oil sands have some very big problems that need to be addressed and none of the solutions that have been tried to date have worked, … Certainly this has left Alberta, and Canada, it has to be said, in a very vulnerable position vis-a-vis international relations -- the importance of building an industry that has a healthy ability to access customers in export markets, pipelines and everything else that's important to the industry -- so it is really very, very important that we make the right things happen.”

My sense is that the professional and technical community comprising the petroleum industry in Calgary would welcome the establishment of a credible environmental management organization, as would the executives and senior managers. My many conversations with colleagues in the industry over the years have convinced me that most of the members of this group are environmentalists at heart, and many are concerned about the damage that is being done to Canada’s reputation by the mismanagement that has characterized oil sands development up to now. The idea that this community could be grouped under the heading of “Big Oil” as opposing sensible regulation of their industry is ludicrous.

Given the opposition that is currently being expressed to the two major pipeline proposals for the export of oil sands crude (the Keystone and Northern Gateway projects), the industry and the Alberta government have a very long way to go to generate a consensus that oil sands development is the right way to go. But if we don’t need the resource now, we will in the near future, and so there is everything to be gained by proper environmental monitoring and management of the many extraction projects that are now underway.

At the end of January 2012 it appeared that everything was finally coming together. The scientists who had taken part in the various panel processes and in the development of the Environment Canada science plan, were invited to take part in a teleconference briefing presented jointly by officials of Alberta Environment and Environment Canada of a new Joint Canada-Alberta Implementation Plan for Oil Sands Monitoring. The Fellows who took part in the briefing included David Schindler, Steve Hrudy, John Smol, and myself, along with half a dozen other scientists, and a large team from each of the two governments. This was a technical briefing, and it laid out for us a truly first class science program based on the planning work done by Environment Canada. The public announcement of the report was made jointly by Ministers Kent and McQueen a few days later, on February 3rd. The current plan calls for joint administration by the two Assistant Deputy Ministers from Environment Canada and Alberta Environment. However, continued discussions with the science community, led by David Schindler, seem likely to lead to the establishment of this new program in a stand-alone structure, as had been recommended all along. Not only must the science be excellent, and free from potential influence by government or industry, but it must be seen to be so. Such a structure will also facilitate a greater role for the First Nations, not only in taking part in the administration of the work, but in participating through the integration of Traditional Environmental Knowledge into the observational framework. At the time of writing, Minister McQueen had promised to continue consultation with Schindler and others on the desired administrative structure (although it expected that there will be an election soon in Alberta, which could stall the process), and so it appears that one of Canada’s most important science-related public policy issues should finally be resolved in a manner that is satisfactory to all responsible Canadians.


Andrew D. Miall

Toronto  7th February 2012

The two panel reports:

Dowdeswell, E. (chair), Dillon, P. Ghoshal, S., Miall, A. D., Rasmussen, J., and Smol, J. P., 2010, A foundation for the future: Building an environmental monitoring system for the oil sands: A report submitted to the Minister of Environment, Canada, December 2010, 49 p.

Kvisle, H. (co-chair), Tennant, H. (co-chair), Doucet, J., Kindierski, W., Miall, A. D., Pryce, D., Rasmussen, J., Taylor, G., Wallace, R., Wheater, H., Williams, D., 2011, A world-class environmental monitoring, evaluation and reporting system for Alberta, The report of the Alberta Environmental Monitoring Panel. Government of Alberta, June 30th, 2011, 84 p.


The Canada-Alberta Joint Implementation Plan


Andrew Miall, a former President of the Academy of Science, served as a member of both the Federal Oil Sands Advisory Panel and the Alberta Environmental Monitoring Panel.

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