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Joint Canada-Alberta Implementation Plan for Oil Sands Monitoring

The oil sands are a strategic natural resource for Canada, and a key driver of economic development. However, the expansion of oil sands development has led to the need for a better understanding of the potential cumulative environmental effects. The Government of Canada and the Government of Alberta are working together on a phased and adaptive approach to monitoring to ensure that this important resource is developed in an environmentally responsible way.

The joint plan strengthens environmental monitoring programs for air, water, land and biodiversity in the oil sands region. It will result in improved knowledge of the state of the environment in the oil sands area and an enhanced understanding of cumulative effects and environmental change, including future impacts arising from multiple stressors, which will become more important to understand as development continues. 

Monitoring enhancements are already underway and will continue to be phased in over the next three years to ensure installation of necessary infrastructure, incremental enhancement of activities and appropriate integration with existing monitoring activities in the region.

By the time the three-year plan is fully-implemented in 2015:

  • the number of sampling sites will be higher and over a larger area;
  • the number and types of parameters being sampled will increase;
  • the frequency (how many times) that sampling occurs each year will be significantly increased;
  • the methodologies for monitoring for both air and water will be improved; and
  • an integrated, open data management program will be created.

For a detailed account of each of the elements of the implementation plan, please consult the full Joint Canada-Alberta Implementation Plan for the Oil Sands.   

Water monitoring

  • Improved coordination (timing and location of sampling) for assessing related water parameters – quantity, quality, sediment, fish, benthic invertebrates, aerial deposition, acid-sensitive lakes – for cumulative effects assessment.
  • New sediment monitoring (loadings and quality) throughout the mainstem and key tributaries of the Athabasca River to establish baseline and downstream conditions of potential contaminants throughout the system.
  • New systematic sampling of snow and rainfall in order to assess the relationship between airborne processes, deposition, and surface water runoff entering tributaries and moving downstream.
  • New and improved monitoring techniques for measurement of contaminants ice, ice processes the impact of freeze-up and break-up, sediment processes, and water measurement under ice.
  • New integrated and intensive scientific investigations on representative watersheds.
  • New intensive monitoring of sources of potential near-surface groundwater contaminants and pathways.

Air monitoring

  • New air monitoring in upwind locations to understand the quality of the air moving into the oil sands area.
  • New air monitoring in downwind locations to monitor the quality of air moving out of the oil sands area.
  • Improved monitoring of potential sources of air contaminants to improve understanding of the levels of contaminants that are being emitted to the air from all oil sands-related sources including stacks, mine operations, tailings ponds and vehicles.
  • Improved monitoring to understand contaminant pathways and fate – how they move in the air and where they are deposited in the environment.
  • Improved monitoring methodologies that use remote imagery, mobile monitoring systems, and refined monitoring networks based on the results of special studies designed to identify locations that may experience impacts.

Biodiversity (habitat)

  • Improved core biodiversity monitoring (species, habitats, disturbance) expanded from the current commitment in the Lower Athabasca planning region to include all current and potential oil sands producing areas to the west including the full Athabasca deposit and Peace deposit.
  • New complementary cause-effect monitoring developed and implemented throughout the oil sands areas to better understand and manage effects of different land disturbance types. (This will be particularly helpful for migratory birds and priority species such as caribou.)
  • New "wall-to-wall" human disturbance map developed to cover entire oil sands region with ongoing refinement and updating.
  • Improved high-resolution imagery will be expanded and used to classify habitat and disturbances and to better understand and predict biodiversity patterns.

The result will be a comprehensive, integrated and credible program able to provide information to inform ongoing decisions and be used to measure the performance of policy and regulatory decisions and management. The following provides an indication of how specific aspects of monitoring will improve: 

Approach. Under the plan, the governments of Alberta and Canada will work together over the next three years as partners to implement a world class monitoring program for the oil sands that integrates all environmental components—air quality, water quality, water quantity, aquatic ecosystems, terrestrial biodiversity and habitat.

Management. Implementation will be under the joint direction and management of the two governments to ensure a comprehensive, integrated and joint approach. Specifically, implementation will be co-led by Environment Canada and Alberta Environment and Water’s Assistant Deputy Ministers responsible for science and monitoring. They will work with other government departments responsible for terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity, lands, forests and fish habitat.

Peer review. The monitoring program will undergo external expert peer review after year three and at five-year intervals thereafter to ensure that scientific integrity is maintained.  An annual report on the status of implementation will be made public. In addition, the data from the monitoring program and the methodology used to produce it will be made public on an ongoing basis. Combined with the periodic peer review, it will create a highly transparent and rigorous monitoring program.

Credibility. The implementation plan has been developed by scientists from the two governments, working closely together. It reflects the Integrated Environmental Monitoring Plan for the Oil Sands that was released in July 2011, and which was developed in collaboration with over 100 provincial, territorial and academic scientists.

Transparency. The two governments are working cooperatively to develop and implement an integrated data management system that will enable open and transparent public access to a single source of credible oil sands environmental monitoring data and supporting information.

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