Not settled yet: Alberta, Ottawa spar over oil sands monitoring

Alberta steps up – and on some toes – with a new environmental watchdog

December 06, 2012

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What the Alberta government needs for Christmas is a telephone hotline to Ottawa, like the one that averted nuclear catastrophe between the White House and the Kremlin during the Cold War.

The stakes might not be on the same level in Canadian politics, but there were a few times in 2012 when crossed wires had frazzled Alberta politicians in damage control mode.

Howard Tennant might have spoken out of turn but he was not speaking out of ignorance.

In June, federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney referred to Alberta’s Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk as “a complete and utter asshole.” In September, federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver was on the phone to journalists frantically trying to do damage control after apparently mocking Premier Alison Redford’s plan for a Canadian energy strategy. Then, in October, Alberta accidentally fired off a missile of its own at Ottawa – and feverishly tried to hit the recall button before it detonated.

It was October 17 and Alberta’s Environment Minister, Diana McQueen, was announcing a new “arm’s length” environmental monitoring agency alongside the man who would be in charge of setting it up, Howard Tennant, a well-respected scientist and former president of the University of Lethbridge.

From Alberta’s point of view, the news conference was purring along smoothly when suddenly Tennant began taking shots at the federal government. When it came to monitoring the oil sands, federal environment officials “left Alberta decades ago,” Tennant said. Consequently, he seemed to be saying, Ottawa had lost the moral high ground to be an equal partner in monitoring Alberta’s environment, particularly the oil sands.

“This is Alberta and it’s our resources and it’s our responsibility,” Tennant said. “It would be wise for us to work in co-operation with them and enter into contracts but the way I see it they’re not running Alberta.”

Yikes. This was precisely the opposite argument Alberta has been making the past year as it built bridges with Ottawa over environmental monitoring of the oil sands. In fact, McQueen had held a joint news conference with federal Environment Minister Peter Kent in February to announce an unprecedented joint monitoring system between the two levels of government. And now Tennant seemed to be setting the bridges on fire.

Alberta politicians watched the news conference in dismay. One source who did not want to be identified says a collective shudder passed through the room as the same thought crossed the minds of provincial officials listening to Tennant: “What the heck, where’s he going with this?”

The news conference had barely finished when the first phone calls were made to Ottawa.

“There was an effort after the fact to put calls into the federal government to say, ‘Look, this is not something we are saying,’ ” said the source. “I think this was purely his decision to go that way and there were some people who were a little upset by that tone.”

The calls to Ottawa were made and feathers unruffled. But that’s not the end of this story.

Tennant might have spoken out of turn but he was not speaking out of ignorance. He simply blurted out what is on the mind of the Alberta government – that it is tired of playing second banana to Ottawa when it comes to oil sands monitoring.

The federal government began elbowing itself into a lead position two years ago when it thought, quite correctly, that Alberta had fallen down on the job. With the new environmental monitoring agency, Alberta is reasserting its authority and is proudly pointing to favorable reviews of the proposed body from long-standing critics such as aquatics expert David Schindler.

But how does Alberta plan to reconcile its new province-wide monitoring agency with the Alberta-Ottawa oil sands monitoring system announced last February? Even though Alberta owns the natural resources, the environment is a joint responsibility. So, which level of government takes precedence in the oil sands?

Well, let’s put it this way. Oil sands industries are expected to pump about $50 million a year into the monitoring system and that money will be collected by the province, not Ottawa. As was always the case in politics, whoever holds the purse strings holds the balance of power. If Ottawa has any questions, it can just pick up the phone.

Graham Thomson is an award-winning provincial affairs columnist for the Edmonton Journal.

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