Ottawa and Alberta release oil-sands environmental data for Earth Day

The Federal and Alberta governments are putting a present under Canada's 'Earth Day tree' today, as they open up a new website that will give the public access to environmental data from the Athabasca oil sands.

Peter Kent, the federal Minister of the Environment, and Diana McQueen, Alberta's Minister of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, are meeting this morning in Ottawa to officially open the new website, which will give the public open access to monitoring data that the government has been collecting for over a year.

[ Related: Conservatives open public access to oilsands monitoring data ]

The hope, it seems, is that having access to this information will ease worries about the environmental impacts of extracting oil from the Athabasca region. While the gesture hasn't gone unnoticed, it seems there are some mixed feelings about it.

According to The Canadian Press, University of Alberta ecologist Dr. David Schindler, who called attention to deformities found in fish downstream from the oil sands earlier this month, was consulted on the website and is supportive of it, but Greenpeace Canada's climate and energy campaigner Keith Stewart isn't quite on-board yet.

"We're a little skeptical, as the system won't be fully implemented until 2015 and yet the two levels of government continue to approve new projects in the absence of reliable data on cumulative impacts," Stewart told The Canadian Press.

The new projects Stewart refers to are, apparently, alternatives to the Northern Gateway project, which would pump oil sands bitumen from Alberta to the BC coast, and the Keystone XL project, which would carry the bitumen south to the United States. According to The Canadian Press article, anonymous sources in Ottawa said that the new projects would "pipe bitumen from the West through Eastern Canada, either for shipping or refining in Quebec or Atlantic Canada."

[ More Geekquinox: Canadians ‘Act for the Planet’ to mark Earth Day ]

Another part of the skepticism over the new site comes from the government's actions over the past years, which have spawned protests over their plans to restrict environmental oversight times, their withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol and their closure of the Experimental Lakes Area in northwestern Ontario. So, this gesture could appear to be solely to gain 'social license' from the public so that they can continue the oil-sands project.

"I think they are on a quest of social license, that's for sure," said NDP environment critic Megan Leslie, according to The Canadian Press. "The reasons it's a 'quest' is their own fault."

Having the environmental data from the Athabasca area is a good step, and it's certainly better than the government holding those cards close to its chest. However, with all the disappointing news coming lately that makes it seem as though Canada has abandoned its position as a leader on environmental issues, one can't help but view this with some reservations.

What do you think? Is this a welcomed gesture from the government and a sign of their continued commitment to the environment, or is this just an empty gesture designed to curry favour and reduce opposition to their plans?

You can find the new website at:

(Photo courtesy: Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

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