CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Canada’s environment minster has formed a scientific panel to examine whether Alberta’s oil sands projects are polluting the Athabasca River as charged by an influential water ecologist.
Environment Minister Jim Prentice said on Thursday the panel, led by a former United Nations Environment Program director, will advise him on the state of water research and monitoring being done in the oil sands region.
The panel comes as part of a response to a growing debate about the environmental impact of developing the vast Canadian oil sands. It’s the largest oil reserve outside of the Middle East, but it’s a growing source of greenhouse gasses and the waste ponds at mining projects are toxic to wildlife.
Output from the region, the largest single source of U.S. oil imports, is expected to about double to 3 million barrels a day by 2020.
The extra production will come from new projects and expansions of existing facilities run by Royal Dutch Shell Plc, Total SA, Suncor Energy Inc, ConocoPhillips and others.
The move follows the Alberta government’s announcement last week that it will form an independent panel of scientists to study the Athabasca, which flows through the region that is the site of massive oil sands plants.
“The mandate of this advisory panel is to provide me with advice that responds to the criticism that we’ve been hearing about the quality of the water monitoring,” Prentice told Reuters. “Obviously you can’t have good public policy if you don’t have good data, and the criticisms I’ve been concerned about over the last several months call into question how we are doing the testing, in particular the water testing.”
The initiatives come after a report coauthored by University of Alberta biologist David Schindler, which concluded that oil sands plants are sending toxins including mercury, arsenic and lead into the watershed.
Schindler sharply criticized work by the government-supported and industry-funded Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program, which has consistently said that pollution in the Athabasca River system occurs naturally.
Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner asked Schindler to choose some of the members of the provincial panel.
The scientist praised Prentice’s roster of scientists and its mandate to concentrate on the monitoring. However, he questioned having two panels working concurrently.
“One would save taxpayers’ money and scarce scientific gray matter,” Schindler said. “I hope the ministers will get together.”
Prentice has said the industry must improve environmental performance while developing the oil sands, the largest crude source outside the Middle East. Its development has come under increasing attack from environmental groups.
On Wednesday, following a high-profile visit to the oil sands and Alberta aboriginal communities, James Cameron, the Canadian-born Hollywood film director, urged more independent study of the impact of development on water, wildlife and native people.
Ottawa’s six-person panel will be chaired by Elizabeth Dowdeswell, former U.N. Environment Program director and under-secretary general and assistant deputy minister with Environment Canada.
The scientists include Peter Dillon of Trent University, Subhasis Ghoshal of McGill University, Andrew Miall of the University of Toronto, Joseph Rasmussen of the University of Lethbridge and John Smol of Queen’s University.
They will examine current scientific monitoring and research, and point out its strengths and weaknesses, reporting back to Prentice within 60 days.
The oil industry welcomes the initiative and prospects for making the emotional issue more transparent, said Greg Stringham, vice-president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. “We plan on being fully cooperative,” he said.
Simon Dyer, oil sands director of the Pembina Institute, an environmental think tank, also praised the move, but said it move could have been made a decade ago.
“It shows that the burden of evidence has grown so overwhelming -- the indefensible position of the provincial government, RAMP and their monitoring and the federal government’s absence of monitoring,” Dyer said. “It’s come to the point where the feds and the province felt that they had to do something.”
Additional reporting by Scott Haggett; Editing by Frank McGurty