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Alberta, Ottawa to release plan for oilsands environmental monitoring

EDMONTON -- Alberta and the federal government are expected to reveal some of the details of their long-awaited plan to track the environmental impact of oilsands development later today.

Alberta Environment Minister Diana McQueen and her federal counterpart, Peter Kent, have scheduled a joint news conference for early afternoon. Departmental bureaucrats held a technical briefing on Tuesday for scientists who made recommendations on how the monitoring system should look.

The plan is considered crucial to answering critics who charge that the multibillion-dollar industry is being allowed to charge ahead far in advance of government's ability to regulate it.

That point was made in a series of six independent reports in 2010 and 2011.

Alberta Environment officials told The Canadian Press earlier this month that today's announcement will consist of a scientific plan that will allow researchers to get into the field this summer.

The announcement is also expected to contain details of third-party scientific oversight.

Details on governance, however, will come later.

Members of the various panels that have studied Alberta's monitoring system have been insistent that the monitoring body should have some independence. They have proposed an arm's-length commission, or a body that reports directly to the environment minister, instead of the bureaucracy.

Steve Hrudey, a retired University of Alberta professor who led the Royal Society of Canada's report on the issue, said some independence is crucial.

"If the public interest is to be served, an independent agency must give its advice based on expertise and evidence, not what the minister wants to hear," he wrote last summer in the Hill Times newspaper.

Others who have contributed to revamping the monitoring program have complained about how long it's taken to come up with a plan. Today's announcement will barely come in time to get workers in the field for the crucial spring season, when research suggests contaminants flow into the Athabasca River.

A credible monitoring plan is seen by many as an essential step towards defending an industry coming under increasing scrutiny and criticism around the world.

A decision on permitting TransCanada's (TSX:TRP) Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oilsands bitumen to U.S. refineries, was delayed by the American government because of public concern over the impact of the oilsands. The European Union is considering measures that would penalize high-carbon fuels, which would include those derived from Alberta's tarry resource.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers has also said it welcomes improved environmental monitoring — as long as the two levels of government work together and don't impose parallel reporting requirements.

Environmentalists say the program needs to get moving because new oilsands developments are already before regulators with impact assessments based on data compiled from the discredited monitoring system.

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