Another environmental monitoring scheme up in smoke without warning

If you want be sad, check out this puff piece on AEMERA from February. It’s so hopeful about what environmental monitoring can look like! It reads like the light at the end of a tunnel after years of industrial expansion without a proper understanding of the cumulative effects on the environment. Don’t walk into the light: AEMERA’s toast, just as it was getting off the ground. The province’s environmental monitoring system got an overhaul earlier this month when the Alberta NDP announced it was cutting the arms length program, Alberta Environmental Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting Agency and were assuming full control of monitoring. Fragmentation of scientific capacity and an unnecessary duplication of studies were cited as the main reasons to shutter another expensive monitoring experiment, said Alberta Environment Minister, Shannon Phillips. Translation: People had no framework or incentive to speak to one another. This would be a huge waste of money and resources, and so perhaps shuttering it is a good thing. Unfortunately, how the government went about it brought up a familiar #smh issue, a failure to consult. It makes me wonder if this new government any better than the PCs of old?

The NPD says it values its relationship with Indigenous peoples, yet they have a funny habit of pulling the rug out from under these same people. Conventional wisdom says that between the folks at AEMERA and the government, a not small number of people would have known it was on the chopping block for a while. Advance knowledge would have also saved First Nations from interfacing with a doomed agency, wasting valuable time and money. This advance knowledge and subsequent government-to-government conversations would have streamlined and perhaps even contributed to or changed the decision regarding AEMERA’s shuttering. Instead, we got more of the same old, tired, story.

I ask this only half ironically, but do First Nations need their own spy agency to stay on top of two-faced government intelligence? This is an absurd question, but honestly, what will it take to get some damned conversation flowing in two directions? The NDP shuttered AEMERA because different bodies weren’t communicating with one another, yet it is guilty of the same sin.

The mission of Alberta’s many failed environmental monitoring programs have varied over the years, but the main idea was to have a credible monitoring system for the Athabasca Oil Sands and to understand the cumulative impacts the various industries and effluents are having on the region. It has taken years to get to this point, and this dream is now back to square one with no reliable forecast on how long it will take for yet another initiative to be up and running.

As imperfect as AEMERA was (and the CEMAs, RAMPs, JOSMs and other iterations that have come before), some comfort could be taken from the fact it ready to go, and was arms length and somewhat insulated from meddlesome, toxic politics. While the Alberta NDP have gone to great lengths to spin their image as a government that cares about the environment (it actually believes in climate change!), there is still an entrenched vision to build pipelines and move Alberta oil to tidewater. There is a permissive attitude to the expansion of the industry. Questions about how this government will direct a monitoring program that they have direct control over, or what protections or arms-length policies will be implemented to reduce such meddling, remains to be seen. Will we see more cherry-picked, useless science, or will we finally get answers?

I’m ready to be pleasantly surprised. In the meanwhile, perhaps I’ll take a martini, shaken and not stirred.

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About Michael Tyas

Michael Tyas is the managing editor of One River News. He graduated the University of Manitoba with an honours degree in environmental studies, and is a professional videographer and video trainer. He produced the feature length documentary "One River, Many Relations" in Fort Chipewyan. He continues to work with indigenous communities to share their stories around resource extraction, industrial development, and impacts on traditional territories.
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