U of T Geology Professor Serves on Oil Sands Advisory Panels with Task of Recommending and Designing Monitoring Programs

Wednesday, January 4, 2012 2:00:00 PM

Research News


By Andrew Miall

Professor Andrew Miall of Geology on the Alberta oil sands
Photo: Professor Andrew Miall of Geology on the Alberta oil sands.  He served on federal and Alberta governmental panels which had the task of recommending and designing monitoring program. (Credit: Andrew Miall.)

Just about a year ago politicians and the general public in the United States were making critical remarks about "Canada's dirty oil." This and other events raised public concern about the oil sands 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, and reported to the then interim Environment Minister John Baird in December 2010 with their findings and recommendations on the implementation of an effective oil sands monitoring program for the Lower Athabasca River and connected waterways (see link below for copy of report).  The Panel was chaired by Liz Dowdeswell, former Director of the United Nations Environment Program, and included Professor Andrew Miall of U of T's Department of Geology. Baird admitted that governments needed to "up their game" with respect to environmental management of the oil sands.

Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner then established an Alberta Environmental Monitoring Panel in January 2011 on which Dr. Miall served. 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. Tasked with designing a world class MER (monitoring, evaluation and reporting) system that addresses all environmental media - air, land, water and biodiversity, . The panel recommended a new, independent, science-based monitoring authority, at arms-length from government and industry, the "Environmental Monitoring Commission" to carry out the work of designing a monitoring, evaluation and reporting system.  The final report (see link below for copy of report) containing these recommendations was released by the Minister on July 5,, 2011.

The final piece of the puzzle is 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, 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. This is a jurisdictional challenge. However, both Alberta Minister Renner and federal minster Peter Kent are on record as promising action in this area, and the public could help enormously by keeping this issue alive in the political arena. 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.

Dr. Miall will present a seminar on this topic on Wed February 8, 4:10 pm as part of the Environment Seminar Series presented by the Centre for Environment.

Copies of reports:

Andrew Miall is a Professor in the Department of Geology.  For more information, please visit his website at http://www.geology.utoronto.ca/Members/miall.