Ole Mrklas is the Director of Monitoring at COSIA. He represents industry partners in the Oil Sands Monitoring (OSM) Program, North America’s largest environmental monitoring program. We caught up with Ole to find out more about this large but little-known Canadian environmental initiative.
Q: What is the Oil Sands Monitoring Program?
A: The program assesses the cumulative effects of oil sands development in the region with data from 1,095 different sites. It monitors the potential environmental influence of oil sands development through specific ambient air quality, regional surface water and groundwater quality and quantity measurements in the Athabasca, Peace and Cold Lake systems. It also monitors the biodiversity of the natural habitat, including wetlands, assessing wildlife and plant changes that result from oil sands development. The parameters for testing are developed by the program members and partners.
All the data is collected up into reports, scientific papers and presentations that are published on a regular schedule and freely available to anyone online. So far, the program has delivered about 700 of these documents. You can see some of them here.
Q: What is unique about this monitoring program?
A: It’s a multi-partner and multi-stakeholder program co-led by the governments of Canada and Alberta that’s very unusual! Provincial and federal leaders work alongside the oil sands industry, regulator, NGOs and communities in the oil sands region, including 18 indigenous communities. Each representative provides input into the program’s governance and the types of scientific data that are collected, weaving western science with indigenous knowledge for a fulsome understanding of environmental priorities.
This collaboration is built on partnerships and trust, ensuring that the program is both comprehensive in scope and scale, and considers any priorities that communities raise. It’s been a very effective model.
Q: Why is the Oil Sands Monitoring Program important for Canadians?
A: This program is important because if you are going to take care of something as valuable as our boreal forest habitat – a unique ecosystem and a national resource – on a regional scale, you need to be able to monitor and measure it so that you can base your decisions on sound, scientific data, and traditional ways of understanding the environment.
Q: What makes you passionate about it?
A: The fact that this program has so many stakeholders and participants involved is its strength – everyone is working towards a common goal of regional environmental assurance. That’s the exciting part for me. This program assures Canadians in a transparent way that oil sands development is being done responsibly. It helps the public be better informed about the potential environmental impacts of oil sands development on the region and makes the data readily available.
Q: Who does the monitoring?
Monitoring is carried out by federal and provincial agencies, independent third parties, and industry participants.
Q: Has the program identified any environmental concerns so far?
A: In its nine years the program has not seen any major changes in the region’s air, water or land as the result of oil sands development. While some contaminants and changes (footprint) identified have been shown to originate from the oil sands industry, other contaminants are the result of further human activities in the region and natural exposure of bitumen (native to the area) to the environment (riverbanks and rivers) through erosion. To date, the combined levels of these contaminants and changes have not been shown to have an adverse environmental impact on the area.
Q: When was the program established?
A: Several smaller regional monitoring programs were combined in 2012 to create the Oil Sands Monitoring Program. The initiative was led by the Alberta provincial government and the federal government as part of ongoing efforts to ensure the oil sands continued to be developed in a responsible and sustainable way. It is entirely funded by the oil sands industry.