Touted oilsands monitoring program slammed by Alberta AG

EDMONTON — Alberta’s auditor general has criticized the highly-touted joint provincial-federal oilsands monitoring program that was conceived by Jim Prentice when he served as federal environment minister.

Merwan Saher said Tuesday, as he released his October report, that an initial report of monitoring activities was late, inaccurate and incomplete, and management of the monitoring projects is weak.

“The report lacked clarity and key information and contained inaccuracies,� he told reporters.

“The report for the second year hasn’t been released.�

Saher said the 2012-13 report was released 15 months after the year ended — a full nine months after its own target date — rendering aspects of the report irrelevant.

The report of the second year’s activities was due in September.

The three-year monitoring program, funded with $50 million annually from oilsands developers, was launched with great fanfare in February 2012, by politicians from both levels of government.

It has been touted as a “world-class� monitoring system and the two governments have mentioned it often to bolster their defence of sustainable oilsands development.

But Saher said the project lacks effective management, may not be completed on time and may fail to meet it objectives.

In Calgary, Prentice said Saher’s criticism dates back to the early stages of the project “before we implemented the joint approach in a robust way.�

“The insights that have been offered have been very valuable and they will help … as we move forward,â€� he said. “I have every confidence that with the leadership that we currently have, they will execute on the advice and the recommendations that have been provided by the auditor general.â€�

A new agency, the Alberta Environmental Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting Agency (AEMERA), took control of the project from Alberta Environment in April.

AEMERA spokeswoman Val Mellesmoen said the auditor general’s criticism of the initial report was fair and measures have already been taken to improve reporting of monitoring activities.

“Absolutely the annual report could have and should have been a lot better,� she said. “We accept all the recommendations and are taking pretty firm action on it.�

The second-year report was held up by technical difficulties but will be out later this week, Mellesmoen said.

Pembina Institute spokeswoman Erin Flanagan said the auditor general highlighted the management issues that prompted several First Nations communities and environmental groups to walk away from the monitoring project.

But she is hopeful the joint project, which expires next March, will develop into something more meaningful under AEMERA in the long term.

“I hope they will design a path forward that’s beneficial for all parties,� she said.

But opposition critics said the governing Tories have failed Albertans.

Wildrose critic Kerry Towle accused Alberta Environment of dropping the ball on environmental monitoring and failing to provide constructive or useful information to the government or Albertans.

Liberal Laurie Blakeman said the auditor general’s report puts the lie to the government’s claim it was conducting world-class monitoring of the cumulative effects of oilsands development.

“We think what the auditor general is outlining very clearly and in very plain language is we don’t have a world-class monitoring system and we never did,� she said.

NDP critic Rachel Notley said the auditor general’s revelations show the PC government is incapable of putting in place an environmental monitoring scheme that’s capable of restoring the province’s international credibility.

“There’s a gap between what is reported and what is going on,� Notley said. “This continues to be a public relations body first and an environmental reporting agency second.�

dhenton@calgaryherald.com

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