Absent of political bias, Andrew Read of the Pembina Institute believes that Bill 31, the Protecting Alberta’s Environment Act, could do what it’s supposed to. But though bringing the various disorganized—and sometimes biased—monitoring efforts under one consolidated body and releasing scientifically consistent information to the public is possible on under this act on a technical level, Read says there are holes left insofar as it sets up an independent monitoring agency.
The act establishes the Alberta Environmental Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting Agency. Its two primary purposes are “to obtain credible and relevant scientific data and other information regarding the condition of the environment in Alberta” and “to ensure the data and other information are available and reported to the public in an open and transparent manner,” doing so with a board of directors and a Science Advisory Panel.
“The real issue that’s arising under this bill is that there are some very obvious points where political bias from the provincial government would potentially impact what is being reported and when it is being reported from the monitoring agency,” Read says.
“The bill contains a number of consultation requirements with the Minister of the Environment as well as no real conflict of interest checks for the board or science advisory panel.”
It was introduced in first reading on October 28 by Minister of the Environment and Sustainable Resource Development Diana McQueen and passed third reading without amendment on November 18—McQueen’s office was contacted for comment on this story, but she was unable to do so. It’s not because nobody found problems or room for improvement—MLAs Joe Anglin of the Wildrose, NDP Rachel Notley and Laurie Blakeman from the Alberta Liberals all claimed to—it’s just that they were all defeated.
“When I identified that they have no criteria for who sits on either the main agency or the subcommittee, which is the scientific panel,” Blakeman says. “I think I just threw my hands up and went, ‘This is just a big steaming pile of dung in the road. It doesn’t do anything.'”
The board of directors of the agency is appointed by the lieutenant-governor. To be eligible, one must only be at least 18 years old, not an elected official, not an employee as defined by the Public Service Act, not bankrupt and not convicted of an indictable offence within the previous five years. It contains no specific guarantee of varied stakeholder inclusion.
“It doesn’t include aboriginal peoples, it doesn’t include representation from the oil and gas sector, it doesn’t include environmental groups, it doesn’t include landowners, it doesn’t say anything about who goes on this board. So what are we supposed to take from that?” Blakeman asks. “They’re just going to appoint a bunch of their Tory friends again?”
Notley moved an amendment to require the board of directors to include at least one member each from the aboriginal, landowners, scientific, industrial and non-profit environmental communities. It was defeated.
Anglin tried to amend the bill to prevent anyone sitting on the board of directors who had been an MLA within the last three years, but was defeated.
“Even more frustrating is the lack of requirement for any connection to having a scientific background for the people that are on the science panel,” Blakeman says. “And that’s just beyond the pale.”
One of Blakeman’s amendments would have required that the members of the Science Advisory Panel be “qualified in the field of environmental science, designated by the board of directors, taking into account the scientific experience required by the Science Advisory Panel to assist the Agency in its areas of activity.”
This amendment, too, was defeated. Anglin tried to amend the act to allow the lieutenant-governor to set professional scientific qualifications that the members of the Science Advisory Panel must then meet. The amendment was defeated.
Read explains that some of those amendments are common in European legislation and couldn’t say why our government is shying away from such measures, given the experience across the Atlantic. He takes particular issue with the frequency of the publication of the data being decided via consultation with the minister.
“If that reporting to the public has to be done on a consultation basis with the minister, well the minister’s going to be having a lot more political considerations in terms of releasing environmental information that isn’t important for protecting human health,” Read says.
“Right now the environment department can be seen to be really struggling with the environmental reputation of the oil-sands industry, and they’re being really restrictive on information being released that is questioning the environmental performance up there. If these sorts of considerations are being included in this consultation period, you’re not serving the public of Alberta as the monitoring agency needs to.”
The three MLAs who put forward amendments all had at least one that would have put some requirement on the reporting frequency and methods. All such amendments were defeated. According to Blakeman, the assurances from the government that they’ll get the right people who meet the right qualifications are not enough without the commitment the amendments would have bound them to.
“You don’t know this, but you’re actually down Alice’s rabbit hole right now,” Blakeman says. “We all are. When the government says something, it actually means the opposite. When the premier says ‘more accountable’ it actually means and is implemented as ‘less accountable.’ Despite the fact that we brought forward, that the [NDP] brought forward and I think even the Wildrose brought forward amendments to try and put the detail into this bill, they flat-out rejected every single one of them.
“They don’t want the detail in there, they don’t want anyone to be able to go, ‘Well this is what you’re supposed to be doing and you’re not doing it.’ If there’s nothing in the bill to hold them accountable … then you can’t hold them accountable and they can’t be found deficient.”
Without that detail, the act may establish a board with a goal, but it lacks substantial criteria for success and failure. The organization might go on to accomplish a lot, but the organization’s mandate could still be fulfilled with very little being done.
“It was just a real disappointment from a lot of the environmental community,” Read says. “We were expecting some pretty substantial changes in terms of monitoring in the province, and all the politicians that are travelling off to Europe and the US trying to prove our environmental stewardship here in Alberta are really touting these monitoring activities as showing that we are doing things in a very environmentally responsible manner. However, it’s not really being reflected in the development that’s actually happening here.
“It’s quite a concern seeing no real open discussion in the ways of enhancing the monitoring system here in Alberta. These discussions seem closed-door and are not involving the full stakeholders.”
As far as Blakeman’s concerned, the government is looking to go full steam ahead with development without regards to advice to diversify the economy or striking a balance with the environment or thought for the future. Loose criteria on environmental monitoring fits into that model.
“They have no respect for intergenerational theft, because those resources have to be developed in a way that they will be able to create wealth for future generations—because it’s certainly created wealth for current generations and for past ones,” Blakeman says. “The problem is that we’re spending that money faster than it’s coming out of the ground.”
Where Blakeman sees this going is the world either not wanting our oil because they’ve developed alternatives or not wanting it because they consider it an inferior product, thanks to a deficiency in environmental stewardship associated with its extraction.
“Even the guys who run the oil and gas companies—they don’t want to see a polluted Alberta,” Blakeman insists. “They have children, they want their children to play outside without getting asthma, they want to be able to drink water that comes out of a lake or a river in Alberta. They’re not stupid. They’re waiting for the government to give them the rules they have to abide by, and they are really more than willing to do it. But no company is going to get out there ahead of the rules.”
That’s the situation that Alberta will be left in for now. No company wants to be the first to change the way they do business, because if the rules do come in, no company wants to risk explaining to its shareholders why they spent money making changes that turned out to not be the direction the government decided upon.
This agency, a potentially independent monitoring organization that might have divorced science from politics, could have been—could still be—a vital step toward establishing good environmental stewardship rules tailored for Alberta. Blakeman, however, describes it as an empty box, with “Environmental Protection” written on the outside.