Oil Sands Watch | Pembina Institute


Protecting the Athabasca requires less talk, more action

I was pleasantly surprised last week by Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner's opening comments at the Water for Life Conference in Calgary. There's just one problem: the minister's talk doesn't seem to match the government's actions.

While Renner said protecting the environment is critical to the way we do business, the province continues to approve project after project in the oil sands, without ever stopping to consider the cumulative effects of all of that development.

Renner is right: allowing tailings lakes to lie unreclaimed over 130 square kilometres in northern Alberta is not good for business (and it also just so happens to be a massive liability for taxpayers). Mind you, neither is the dearth of a transparent system to report water withdrawals and tailings seepage into the river.

Renner went on to say that we need to leave a legacy to future generations. Of course, we agree — we just have our differences on how to get there.

Right now, oil sands operators will be permitted to continue to draw their water allotment even if rivers reach 100-year low-flow levels. That's not what we call leaving a legacy — unless that legacy is a parched province.

The current framework for the lower Athabasca River suggests that companies withdraw less water during critical low-flow periods, but there is no enforcement mechanism, and there is no requirement for them to ever turn off the taps. You know what that means: we have to rely on companies to reduce their water use voluntarily. This makes many stakeholders nervous.

While a second phase of the framework is in the works, industry continues to block consensus on the need to halt water withdrawals so that a minimum water level, or ecosystem base flow, is maintained for the basic health of the ecosystem. 

The minister's talk is great, but if we are going to ensure oil sands development proceeds responsibly we need to fill five critical gaps in the way oil sands development is managed so that water is protected. I presented these points to the Water for Life Conference immediately following Renner's opening comments. Unfortunately, the minister wasn't able to hear my talk as he left directly after his speech to catch a flight.

1) Water withdrawals need to be halted during low-flow periods.

A scientifically established (not politically established) ecosystem base flow, needs to be put in place, establishing a point at which oil sands withdrawals should cease to ensure there is enough water left to maintain healthy aquatic ecosystems. (There is a relatively simple fix here if companies construct water storage facilities and fill them during higher flow periods).

2) Liquid tailings need to be prohibited for new projects, as their reclamation has never been successfully demonstrated. The suggested end pit lakes (pits to store liquid tailings capped with freshwater) have not been proven, yet projects continue to be approved with this end point in their applications.

3) Tailings Directive 074, which requires companies to reduce liquid tailings volume, needs to be enforced.

Seven of nine tailings management reports submitted under Directive 074 did not comply with the directive. This directive is a step in the right direction, however it must be enforced to ensure companies comply.

4) Reporting of water withdrawals and seepage from tailings ponds needs to be transparent.

Water withdrawals are reported on an annual basis, despite the fact the Athabasca River is highly seasonally variable — so we don't know how much water is being withdrawn at critical low-flow periods. Weekly water withdrawals should be made publicly available. Government and industry refuse to come clean on actual seepage rates from tailings ponds.

5) We urgently need a wetland policy that requires oil sands companies to compensate fully for wetland loss.

There is no wetland policy for the forested zone of Alberta, including the oil sands development area. Since development is still taking place in an area where the landscape is about 40 per cent wetland, we need to see a policy in place to ensure no net loss of wetlands within the province. Alberta's policy is many years overdue, and now there are troubling rumours that the Government of Alberta has caved to industry pressure and has removed requirements that would protect wetlands.

Without taking these five key measures, the only legacy we'll be leaving is one of environmental mismanagement.

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