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Alberta NDP government revamps oilsands watchdog

NDP to take over AMERA after report shows mismanagement
WATCH ABOVE: The Notley government is taking over The Alberta Environmental Monitoring Evaluation and Reporting Agency, or AMERA, after a consultant’s report showed mismanagement at the organization. Gary Bobrovitz reports.

The oilsands watchdog that had one communication staffer for every two scientists on payroll is being restructured and brought back into the Alberta government.

“The new model we are bringing forward is the best option because it ensures that government is directly accountable for environmental monitoring and that issues and gaps in monitoring are responded to immediately,” Environment and Parks Minister Shannon Phillips said.

“It will eliminate fragmentation of scarce scientific capacity and costly administrative duplication.”

The Alberta government announced the new structure Tuesday, saying it will improve the province’s environmental monitoring and reporting system.

Some are skeptical about the move to put environmental monitoring back under government control.

READ MORE: Alberta Liberal leader says NDP may be planning makeover for oilsands watchdog

The new model will replace the Alberta Environmental Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting Agency (AEMERA), which an independent review found was needlessly expensive, poorly co-ordinated and split by bureaucratic infighting. It will bring environmental monitoring back into the government’s hands.

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Environment Minister Shannon Phillips said tracking impacts on the province’s air, land and water is too important to be left to a group outside government.

“We are committed to doing the best job we can of monitoring the environmental impacts of industry and resource development as we build a more resilient, diversified economy. Outsourcing this work was not the answer,” Phillips said.

“Moving expertise back into government under the guidance of two panels reporting to a new provincial chief scientist will allow us to strengthen our scientific capacity and be more transparent and credible in our reporting.”

Phillips said the previous system divided the province’s scientific resources and created expensive duplications.

“You had some monitoring happening within the department of Environment and Parks and some monitoring happening within an independent agency. They did not always talk to one another. In addition, you had some monitoring happening at the federal level or community-based monitoring happening in the communities. They did not always talk to one another,” Phillips said.

“With this decision, what we are doing is ensuring that we have a government to government-to-government relationship on the monitoring file.”

Critics worry there will be a loss of independence when it comes to environmental monitoring but the minister said that will be maintained by a science advisory panel and a traditional ecological knowledge panel that will remain independent.

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WATCH: The NDP government is restructuring the Alberta Environmental Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting Agency, which had only been operating for a couple of years. Tom Vernon explains.
Alberta oilsands watchdog being restructured
Alberta oilsands watchdog being restructured

The science advisory panel will report to the province’s chief scientist, a new position created by the government.

Phillips’ announcement came after a review found AEMERA was a “failed experiment” and recommended the process should be rolled back up into the government.

“It is hard to escape the conclusion that AEMERA is a failed experiment in outsourcing a core responsibility of government to an arm’s-length body,” wrote report author Paul Boothe, director of the Lawrence National Centre for Policy and Management at Western University’s Ivey School of Business.

“Three years and tens of millions of dollars later, the results are an organization that is still struggling to get established, dysfunctional relationships with its two key partners … and a failure of all three parties to realize the promise of the … plan to bring critically needed, world-class environmental monitoring to Alberta’s oilsands.”

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The agency was founded in 2012 after years of criticism over how Alberta was keeping track of the environmental impacts of the then-rapidly expanding oilsands.

The plan was to bring provincial scientists together with resources from Environment Canada to jointly co-ordinate the study of how the industry was affecting the region’s air, land and water. The resulting agency was funded by $50 million from industry and another $28 million from the province, which was to fund the expansion of environmental monitoring across the province.

The agency’s research plans have been hailed as a dramatic improvement and numerous scientific papers have been published from its work. But Boothe, a former Environment Canada deputy minister, said the organization itself never gelled.

Boothe’s report, obtained by The Canadian Press, points out the funding agreement between government and industry expired a year ago and has never been renewed, “in part because of AEMERA’s unwillingness to accept (Environment Canada) as an equal partner in oilsands monitoring.”

How the agency was supposed to work with the provincial Environment Department and who it was accountable to was never made clear, he writes.

The transfer of provincial scientists to the agency made it hard for the government to fulfil its other environmental responsibilities. The agency’s reluctance to allow for a federal role restricted its use of Environment Canada resources.

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It also costs more than it should.

“In part, the higher costs come because its governance and administrative structures duplicate structures that already exist, at lower cost, in the public sector,” wrote Boothe.

“In addition, costs are higher because AEMERA has chosen private rather than public sector salary and benefit comparators.”

Boothe outlined several options for Phillips. But his preferred path was to return the agency’s work to her department with clear lines of accountability to the minister.

“This option has the benefit of consolidating scarce scientific expertise in one location in Alberta,” he wrote. “The administrative structure of this option is likely to be the least costly to operate.”

His concerns were presaged in February by a scientific peer review, which found the agency’s work was poorly focused and co-ordinated. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers also expressed concerns about the need for more integration, analysis and coherence.

Boothe concluded the agency failed because it was based on a false belief that the public didn’t trust Alberta’s environmental monitoring because it was done by government. Instead, he said, the public didn’t trust it because it was bad monitoring.

It’s estimated the new system will save about $3 million. Phillips said any savings will be reinvested into environmental monitoring.

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When it comes to funding the new model, some funding will come from the government but industry will still be expected to pay $50 million per year.

With files from Gary Bobrovitz, Caley Ramsay, Tom Vernon, Global News