Oct 292012
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Alberta pledges (a Board to recommend plans for) an Environmental Working Group.

by Ricardo Acuña

Billed as a big, important announcement, the Alberta government finally announced how it will move forward to deal with the problem of inadequate environmental monitoring in the province's north — something Albertans have been waiting for since the government first acknowledged the problem two years ago.

For a moment, it actually appeared the government might be ready to start taking concrete steps to fix the problem as Alberta's Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development, Diana McQueen, announced a press conference to release the recommendations of the Environmental Working Group and the government's corresponding action plan.

The plan was laid out in a news release that, even by Government of Alberta standards, was quite over the top. It boasted that Alberta was set to build "the most comprehensive environmental monitoring program in Canada."

How would Alberta do this? By establishing an arms' length science-based environmental monitoring agency. According to the government's press release, this agency "will begin work in the oil sands region and will focus on what is monitored, how it's monitored and where it's monitored. This will include integrated and coordinated monitoring of land, air, water and biodiversity."

The government’s press release said this agency “will begin work in the oil sands region and will focus on what is monitored, how it’s monitored and where it’s monitored.” Not quite.

This is good news, right? At long last Albertans are going to get what so many had been asking for: an independent, science-based agency to establish environmental guidelines and then monitor the observance of those guidelines.

Unfortunately, it's never quite that straightforward with this government. It turns out this wasn't actually announcing the launch of a monitoring agency, but rather the establishment of a management board which will eventually report back to the environment minister with recommendations on how an agency could be created.

It's also the case that, once the agency does get created, it won't actually be independent, but rather will report directly to the minister, who will determine what gets passed on to the public and what doesn't. The government will also get to appoint the people on the agency.

Furthermore, there is still no commitment to fund the creation of this agency or its work. Figuring out how to do that will be part of the work of the management board. However it gets funded, the government has been clear that all money will go through its books before getting handed to the agency.

Ultimately, the government's over-the-top media release and press conference had absolutely no meat to them whatsoever. No agency has been funded or created, no funding commitments have been made and we're in exactly the same place vis-á-vis environmental monitoring in this province that we've been in for the past two years.

After two years and two reports we still have no new environmental monitoring agency, no funding model, and no timeline.

In case you've forgotten, this whole process started almost two years ago when the government could no longer deny that monitoring of the environmental impacts of bitumen developments was grossly inadequate. That admission resulted in the government appointing an expert panel to look at and make recommendations on the state of environmental monitoring in the province. That panel recommended the creation of an independent science-based agency to set up and oversee monitoring in the province.

The government responded to that recommendation by creating a working group of experts, which in turn recommended the creation of an independent science-based agency.  That's the group whose report the government released last week and responded to by announcing the creation of a management board to make recommendations on what an independent monitoring agency could look like.

Howard Tennant, who headed the working group and will chair the new management board, suggests that it could take up to two years for this board to report back to the Minister on a recommended structure and funding model for the agency. At that point, those recommendations would once again have to work their way through the government for approval.

So to recap, after two years and two reports we still have no new environmental monitoring agency, no funding model, and no timeline, but we do know that if and when that agency finally does get created it will be neither financially nor politically independent.  And yet, somehow, the government can still claim with a straight face that environmental stewardship is at the top of its priority list. How gullible does it think Albertans are?

About Ricardo Acuña

Ricardo Acuña is Executive Director of the Parkland Institute, a non-partisan public policy research institute housed at the University of Alberta.

© Copyright 2012 Ricardo Acuña, All rights Reserved. Written For: StraightGoods.ca

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