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Tories unveil oilsands advisory panel

Federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice says personal concerns over the quality of environmental monitoring in Alberta's oilsands have motivated him to appoint a panel to look into it.

Federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice says personal concerns over the quality of environmental monitoring in Alberta's oilsands have motivated him to appoint a panel to look into it.

"I have heard the criticism. I have reviewed closely the criticism that I have heard over the course of the last several months," said Prentice, who signalled earlier this month he would make such a move.

"I have had my own concerns about the nature of the testing that's being done, and have proceeded on this basis to get immediate response from some of Canada's best scientists."

The six-member panel has 60 days to write their report on the state of environmental research and monitoring in the region. The report will be publicly released.

"It's a very short timeline," said panel chairwoman Elizabeth Dowdeswell, the former head of the United Nations environment program. "Environment Canada has indicated we will have whatever resources we need to do the work in that time frame."

Dowdeswell said the panel will also advise Prentice on the best monitoring system available.

"It's certainly going to start with a literature review because there's so much that has been done," said Dowdeswell. "I'm sure that may lead to some of our own (research) that needs to be done."

Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner, whose government made a surprise announcement last Friday that it would convene its own independent review, was taken unawares.

"It's somewhat surprising," he said. "There may well be some opportunities for two separate panels to actually come together at some point in time, particularly where they are dealing with matters of common interest."

Renner's panel was announced three days before Hollywood film director James Cameron arrived to tour the oilsands and speak with industry, government and aboriginal representatives. He wrapped up his tour Wednesday calling for more study on the health effects of the oilsands and a moratorium on tailings ponds.

Renner insisted that Alberta is still in charge of environmental monitoring in the region.

"We have been monitoring this region for some time and we welcome the additional information that a federal review may contribute, but at the end of the day we are the lead jurisdiction," he said.

"We believe that no matter where that input comes from it will be our responsibility as it has been in the past to implement those changes where necessary."

But Prentice wasn't backing down.

"As federal environment minister, I want to ensure we have an independent panel of Canada's best scientists to provide me with their advice on what a good monitoring program would look like."

Environmental groups applauded Thursday's announcement, saying Ottawa has ignored its environmental regulatory role for too long.

"The federal government has a strong responsibility and has mostly been missing in action," said Gillian McEachern of Environmental Defence.

Greenpeace spokesman Mike Hudema agreed.

"After 40 years of all bark and no bite, finally a good first step from a federal government that's been missing in action on tarsands issues," he said. "The real proof of whether the feds are serious about addressing an increasingly destructive tarsands industry will be in how they act on the findings of the panel."

Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute said the regulatory approval process for all oilsands projects should be suspended until the panel reports.

"There are still oilsands approvals working their way through the process that aren't going to have any input from what this panel provides. A lot of these projects are being assessed on faulty information and faulty logic."

David Schindler, a University of Alberta ecologist whose work has linked the oilsands to toxic metals and hydrocarbons in land and water around the oilsands, agreed that reviews in process should be halted and gave Prentice high marks for the panel.

"The panel is exactly what I suggested," he said. "Three of the names he announced were names I suggested."

The panel members are Peter Dillon from Trent University, Subhasis Ghoshal from McGill University, Andrew Miall from the University of Toronto, Joseph Rasmussen from the University of Lethbridge and John Smol from Queen's University.

"These are people who are used to getting things done," said Smol, who has published over 400 papers on topics such as acid rain and biomonitoring.

Dowdeswell said she expects the federal panel to work together with their provincial counterparts.

Greg Stringham of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers said energy companies, who provide most of the data to current monitoring programs, plan to co-operate with both panels.

"There's lots of information that has historically has been monitored on this river that we'll make sure they have full access to," he said. "That transparency for us, in particular, is really critical, to make sure that confidence is established.

"If there are things that they suggest to improve, we'll have to act on those."

 
 
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