Alberta cutting spending on environmental monitoring of oilsands: labour boss
EDMONTON —The Alberta Federation of Labour says spending on public-sector monitoring of the environment has dropped precipitously in the years that investment in oilsands developments has rocketed.
Their analysis found a 26-per-cent drop in spending on environmental monitoring, compliance and enforcement and a 54-per-cent increase in spending on public relations since 2003.
Gil McGowan, the federation’s president, said they’d been hearing stories from unionized public-sector workers that resources in Alberta Environment had been cut to the bone, so they decided to see how bad the situation was. These comments were made in the broader discussion of the oilsands and the serious questions raised about environmental monitoring, especially downstream of the oilsands, he said.
Budget documents show Alberta Environment spent $27 million on monitoring, enforcement and compliance programs in 2003, while this year’s budget projects spending of $20 million, McGowan said.
“We’re not only concerned about the public-sector jobs that have been lost or which were never created as a result of these spending cuts, but we’re also concerned about the message that this sends to Albertans and people in markets that buy our products, especially energy products. If the Alberta government was really serious about monitoring the environmental impacts of oilsands development, they would have been spending more, not less, on monitoring.”
The issue of proper monitoring has come up repeatedly in the last few years, but particularly during the last nine months as scientists from the University of Alberta released peer-reviewed research that showed oilsands development is contaminating the surrounding watershed. David Schindler, the foremost scientist associated with the research, has called for Environment Canada to increase its involvement in the monitoring of the Athabasca River and the Peace-Athabasca Delta downstream.
Federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice said he is responding to these calls. “From my perspective, we have to have good data and the only way to make sure we are getting that is to bring in the best scientists we have in this country, get their advice on how we should do the monitoring and then we will go from there,” he said Thursday.
His department is finalizing the membership of a panel that will look at the monitoring.
Alberta Environment spokeswoman Erin Carrier said it’s easy for the federation to cherry-pick line items from a really complex budget to support their own specific agenda. “It is disingenuous to misrepresent information in this way. In no way has Alberta Environment reduced our commitment to monitoring. And our own numbers show that we spent more than $50 million in 2010 in these areas, so that’s up from about $37 million in 2003, according to our numbers.”
Carrier said because air, land and water monitoring is performed by staff across Alberta Environment, it isn’t restricted to just one division and so it’s not as simple as picking out one line item from an annual report. For example, their Emergency Response Team was created in 2006 and was formerly part of the compliance and enforcement budget line, but this was separated out when they formed a dedicated unit to respond to environmental emergencies.
“When they say cherry-picking, whenever you look at a budget you cherry-pick the line items that are relevant, right?,” McGowan said. “So there has been a particular line item that has been consistent over the period, going back to 2003, which says monitoring, reporting and innovation. That’s the main one we’ve used. But we also threw in the numbers for compliance and enforcement. So we added those two together to come to our total.”
McGowan said that while spending on environmental monitoring was going down, the amount spent on public relations was going up dramatically, from $717,000 in 2003 to $1.1 million for 2010.
“What that suggests to us is that the government was more interested in spending money on spin doctoring than on actually monitoring the impacts of development in the province.”
Carrier said the increased budget is largely due to the ministerial correspondence unit created so that staff working in other divisions, such as enforcement, can focus on their other work.
But Schindler doesn’t think Alberta Environment has the necessary equipment to do proper testing and that the public doesn’t trust them anymore. “I think even with Environment Canada, it would be necessary to have an oversight committee to ensure accurate and transparent reporting, or the First Nations will never buy in.”