OTTAWA - The House of Commons environment committee is wading into a raging public relations war over the Alberta oilsands with a study of the industry's impact on water resources.
The MP who proposed the study is Montreal-area Liberal Francis Scarpaleggia. In an interview, he said he assured Conservative MPs - sensitive about an industry in the heart of their political bastion - that the study "is not about a witch hunt" in a sector of the energy industry that some environmentalists are campaigning to have shut down.
He said hearings expected to begin Thursday are aimed at reconciling conflicting reports linking oilsands operations to damage and risk to the vast, connected water basins of the Athabasca and Mackenzie rivers - the source of one fifth of Canada's fresh water.
Scarpaleggia says MPs also need to clarify the federal government's role as an arbiter in potential disputes among provincial and territorial governments over future water shortages or damages.
The water basins span about 20 per cent of Canada's land mass, spilling across three provinces and two territories: Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Northwest Territories and Yukon.
The committee aims to "put a spotlight" on federal government responsibility in a jurisdictional jungle that involves some overlap with those governments as well as treaty obligations to First Nations.
The study is "absolutely critical" says Arctic energy expert Peggy Holroyd, lead author of a recent Pembina Institute report urging suspension of new oilsands lease sales until stronger rules are in place to protect water in northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories.
The Dene Nation of the Northwest Territories also called for a halt to oilsands expansion two weeks ago, accusing the federal government of "colossal mismanagement" and failure to protect water, fish and migratory species.
Oilsands production is a water-intensive industry. Strip mining depletes wetlands and a vast volume of fresh water is used as steam to extract bitumen from underground wells. According to one widely cited figure, three barrels of fresh water are consumed on average for each barrel of oil produced.
As well as its consumption of massive amounts of groundwater, the oilsands industry has been faulted for failing to recycle the water on a mass scale and for dumping contaminated water into massive tailing ponds that would cause an ecological disaster if breached.
"There's a big dispute as to whether the tailing ponds are leaking or not," Scarpaleggia said. "The industry will say no, they're not, and the environmentalists say, 'Well we have evidence that they are.' So let's find out what the truth is.
"They drill around the ponds to see if there's water seeping through and the industry says the water is not contaminated. But the environmentalists say (they) have evidence that it is. As a legislator, my interest is to find out what the truth is."
Scarpaleggia sees no contradiction between the study and a recent campaign by Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff to assure the public, notably in the West where the Grits have little support, that his party regards the oilsands as an engine of the national economy. Ignatieff mentioned the water issue in his first such speech, the MP said.
By singling out water, Scarpaleggia hopes to show that Liberals are not jumping on an anti-oilsands bandwagon that recently has focused on the industry's high level of greenhouse gas emissions.
"When you're talking about greenhouse gas emissions and the oilsands, you get a sense that Albertans just tune out now. They've been hit over the head too much with it," he said.
By contrast, he said, there is evidence that Albertans are widely concerned about the fate of their water supplies. "Here's an issue that doesn't alienate Albertans because Albertans are as concerned about the impact of oilsands on water as I am or (as) any other Canadian."
The first witnesses expected at the committee are federal officials from the departments of Fisheries, Environment and Natural Resources. Prominent non-government experts will be called, as will authorities on constitutional jurisdiction.
"As climate changes begin to impact on Canada's water resources and there's competition for water, there are going to be some interprovincial issues, some cross-border issues within Canada, and I would think the federal government has a responsibility to monitor these issues as a potential arbiter in the future," Scarpaleggia said.
"We want to bring in experts on governance. They'll tell us what the federal government's responsibilities would be if there are disagreements among the provinces."
Edmonton MP Linda Duncan, the New Democratic Party environment critic, said she welcomes the study as a chance to show how the federal government "has dropped the ball" in protecting the environment and human health in the region.
"The only reason the federal government has been held to account and is delivering any vestige of their mandate is because of community advocacy," Duncan said.
"It's fallen on the shoulders of quite underprivileged First Nations who are downstream and downwind of those facilities and, to their credit, environmental organizations in Alberta who have stepped up to the plate and shared their expertise."