Declining air quality in the tar sands region: Is the government responding?

A new report released by the Alberta government reveals a concerning trend with declining air quality as a result of tar sands operations.  While the report itself was just released, the air pollution information in the report is dated back in 2012.  What's more, there appears to be a total lack of a response by the Alberta government to this problem.  Instead, the government report indicates that only now will the provincial government start to work with industry to take action to address the air pollution problems.    Even then, there is no indication what those management actions will be.

According to the new report reporting for air monitoring stations in tar sands region, levels of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide were measured in 2012 at levels indicating a declining trend but were still below levels the Alberta government considered harmful to human health.   The report promised that the Alberta government would begin to undertake a management response and determine what management actions should occur.

While Environment Minister Robin Camptell took a more relaxed approach to the report findings indicating the “system is working” and they have been “proactive in..working with industry”, the Pembina Institute pushed for more aggressive action: 

“We urge the Government of Alberta and the Alberta Energy Regulator to immediately start development of an emissions reduction plan for the region to get nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide pollution down to targeted levels, including stricter pollution limits for existing and proposed oilsands operations.” 

The government report is part of a broader environmental management system in Alberta that is meant to limit the cumulative effects of tar sands development.  But this approach will only be effective if there is regular up-to-date monitoring and a proactive and immediate response to declining trends like the one that was reported.  So the release of this air quality data – however old – is a key indicator in whether the cumulative effect of tar sands production is worsening air quality.  This is particularly important because according to the Pembina Institute, industry modelling shows that “maximum legal air quality limits are projected to be exceeded in coming years if oilsands expansion proceeds as planned.”

The cumulative effects approach the Alberta government claims it follows, however, is only effective if the government proactively and aggressively respond to declining trends.  So it is a real concern the Government of Alberta has so far failed to take any corrective management actions to respond to these trends.  This does not build confidence the cumulative effects approach is being taken seriously.  

The Alberta government has waged an intensive campaign in Canada and in the United States arguing it is taking a proactive approach that sets firm limits for air, land, and water.  But the only way to measure up to this public relations campaign is to implement it and demonstrate a true commitment to action.