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Twitter Storm Greets Wilkinson Defence After Pandemic Produces 25% Cut in Tar Sands/Oil Sands Monitoring

Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson is pushing back on Twitter—and receiving a small Twitter storm in return—after The Canadian Press reported a 25% cut in the country’s environmental monitoring program for the Alberta tar sands/oil sands due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The deal, a copy of which has been obtained by The Canadian Press, lays out research plans for this year’s field season under a federal-provincial program that oversees all monitoring of the area outside of company leases,” CP reported yesterday. The agreement, signed July 7 by top officials in Ottawa and Edmonton, sets a C$44-million budget for the year—down from $58 million in 2019/2020, of which about $52 million was actually spent.

“Under the deal, administrative costs have ballooned to more than $10 million from about $7 million last year,” CP adds. “That means nearly one-quarter of the monitoring budget will be spent before a single data point is collected.”

In a self-described “fact check” tweeted at 1:13 PM Tuesday, Wilkinson stated that “there is no Canada-Alberta Agreement to reduce oil sands monitoring. Decrease in this year’s spending reflects loss of the spring/summer field season due to COVID-19. This was decided upon by consensus of a 12-person body, including 6 Indigenous and 1 federal rep.” Kevin Cash, acting assistant deputy minister of science and technology in Wilkinson’s department, made the same point in the initial news story.

“We have missed part of the field season,” Cash told CP, adding that lost research time in the spring and summer accounted for most of the cost reduction.

But the news agency lists specific monitoring programs that have been cut completely, including monitoring on the main branch of the Athabasca River downstream from the tar sands/oil sands, field studies on wetlands, fish, and insects, a pilot project to assess the risks posed by tar sands/oil sands tailings ponds, and water quality assessments in Wood Buffalo National Park, where Canada has faced international pressure to properly protect a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Jim Herbers, executive director of the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute, said he’d been told his budget was being cut from $4 or $5 million to $1.4 million to protect field workers from the COVID-19 virus. “Field monitoring is the biggest component of what we’re not going to be doing this year,” he told CP. “The work around monitoring for amphibians, birds, and mammals, that work won’t be undertaken. Nor will work on tracking indicators related to plants or changes in habitat.”

Former provincial official Bill Donahue told CP it was “crazy” to leave the Athabasca unmonitored. “We’ve got one of the biggest industrial developments—the primary problems of which are contamination of the environment and consumption of water—and there’s no downstream monitoring,” he said.

While Wilkinson no doubt intended his tweet to settle the issue, it appeared to have done anything but.

“So scientists out in the middle of large areas/tracts of land collecting samples & monitoring couldn’t happen because of #covid19? Meanwhile people can gather in groups of up to 50 people indoors? Can citizens get the data on how #pandemic restricts monitoring in open outdoor spaces?” asked @cindian1.

“And — #CGL [Coastal GasLink], #TMX [Trans Mountain] fieldwork for new pipelines was ongoing, full steam ahead. But the environmental monitoring of existing infrastructure couldn’t happen?” replied @ngottliebphoto.

“The deal says no fieldwork is to be done on the main branch of the Athabasca River. That means the program won’t fund monitoring downstream of the oil sands even as the province considers proposals to allow the water from oil sands tailings ponds to be released into the river,” warned @StephenPunwasi.

“We’re gonna need a lot more clarification than that, please. The article asserts that a lot more than just oil sands monitoring won’t be happening,” added @RebelHeart529.

“This is a big deal and I hope @JustinTrudeau responds to this,” said @MubinaV. “Funding for environmental protections, impact assessments, and monitoring should not be cut, under any circumstance.”

As of Tuesday evening, there was no further response on Wilkinson’s Twitter feed or his department’s website.