Conservatives mark Earth Day, open public access to oilsands monitoring data

OTTAWA – The federal Conservatives have decided to mark Earth Day this year, launching a long-promised portal for public access to sensitive environmental data from the oilsands.

Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent and his Alberta counterpart Diana McQueen will be at Carleton University in Ottawa on Monday to flick the switch and allow public scrutiny of new research measuring the quality and quantity of the land, air and water in the Athabasca region.

It’s a contrast to the defensive stance the Conservatives have taken on Earth Days past. Last year, hundreds of thousands of people rallied in Montreal and other cities against Ottawa’s changes to environmental oversight and its withdrawal from the Kyoto accord to cut emissions.

And it’s part of an increasingly urgent effort to court more public buy-in for Canada’s resource development practices as the oil patch worries about how it will pipe its product to port.

“I think they are on a quest of social license, that’s for sure,” said Megan Leslie, the NDP’s environment critic. “The reasons it’s a ‘quest’ is their own fault.”

The oilsands monitoring system was started up more than a year ago, touted at the time as a crucial tool in Canada’s efforts to persuade Canadians and the world that the oilsands were not the major source of pollution and global warming that critics were claiming.

Once public, the data, Kent has said, would show a skeptical world that Canada’s oil should be welcomed and not scorned.

“It will provide the facts and the science to defend the product which some abroad are threatening to boycott,” he said as he first announced the idea of a world-class data system in July 2011.

But then came the 2012 budget with its promises to streamline the environmental hurdles industry has to jump through to develop Canada’s natural resources — promises that drove many into the streets last Earth Day and then repeatedly over the summer.

By Christmas, the environmental movement had merged with First Nations who were also upset about the federal government’s two omnibus bills that radically overhauled environmental assessments, fisheries protections and oversight of most of Canada’s waterways.

Now, Alberta’s plans for building at least one pipeline to send oilsands products to a tide-water port are on the line. The Northern Gateway proposal to build a pipeline to Canada’s West Coast is now widely considered moribund because of public concerns about spills and tanker safety. The Keystone XL pipeline through the United States is now a flashpoint for environmentalists on both sides of the border, concerned about greenhouse gas emissions that would increase as production in the oilsands grows.

Ottawa insiders who spoke on condition of anonymity say Ottawa is determined not to follow the same course with two new proposals that would pipe bitumen from the West through Eastern Canada, either for shipping or refining in Quebec or Atlantic Canada.

“The Canadian governments have not paid enough attention to how this could have happened and put in place an inoculation policy,” said David McLaughlin, the former head of the now-defunct National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy.

The federal Conservatives are learning the hard way what corporations involved in mining and energy have long known: that social license is crucial for successful business, he said. The trouble now is, Ottawa comes late to this realization and they need to win back some trust on the environment file, he added.

“I think they make it tougher for themselves, unnecessarily,” McLaughlin said. “It has been tough, but it’s not too late by any means to turn the page….It’s never too late to turn this around.”

The oilsands monitoring program is one key piece of an array of measures the Conservatives are planning to take in the coming months, in large part to show Canadians and the world that the oilsands are being developed responsibly.

Also in the policy pipeline are plans to introduce emissions restrictions for the oil and gas industry, and plans to dramatically raise the liability companies need to carry in case of oil spills or pipeline accidents.

But all three of those policies have lurched towards the finish line.

With the oilsands monitoring plan, federal and provincial officials spent months bickering about who would do what, and how they would get industry to pay.

Now that they have figured it out, whether or not publication of the data aides the social license cause will depend on how relevant and complete scientists find the data.

Outspoken Alberta ecologist David Schindler, who was consulted on the development of the database, is on side. For Greenpeace, however, the jury is still out.

“We’re a little skeptical, as the system won’t be fully implemented until 2015 and yet the two levels of government continue to approve new projects in the absence of reliable data on cumulative impacts,” said Keith Stewart, climate and energy campaign coordinator for Greenpeace Canada.

As for raising the liability limits, various proposals have gone before the House of Commons in the past, only to die quietly before they could be passed.

And the oil and gas emissions regulations have been years in the making. Federal and Alberta officials have been meeting intensely with industry players over the past six months in the hopes of finding rules that are strict enough to allow Canada to meet its international obligations but that won’t unduly penalize industry.

The provinces are likely to have control over the design of the regulations in their own jurisdictions, but Ottawa is on the hook for making sure the international emissions targets are met.