Oil Sands Watch | Pembina Institute


Oil sands PR blitz heads to Washington, D.C.

This week Premier Ed Stelmach jet set his way to Washington, D.C. He's talking oil sands and based on the premier's recent statements, he might be inclined to overpromise (and under-deliver).

Just last month, Stelmach suggested Alberta would eliminate tailings ponds: "It means we're going to have to force - when I say force, we're going to get more aggressive - and work with companies presently in open pit mining to move to either dry tailings or develop that resource without wet tailings ponds."

The day after Stelmach's assertions, the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) approved Syncrude's Mildred Lake and Aurora tailings plans despite the fact that they fail to meet the requirements set out in Directive 074 - to reduce the volume of liquid tailings. The plans won't meet the "critical dates" as set out by the ERCB until June 30, 2015.

Davis Sheremata of the ERCB told CTV that Syncrude "might not have been satisfying the letter of the Directive until 2014 but they were certainly obeying the spirit of it." The ERCB has not announced decisions on the remaining six operations.

The problem is three-fold. First, Stelmach is saying one thing while the ERCB is doing another. Second, the ERCB is not enforcing its own rules. Third, even if operators were to meet the rules, it certainly would not lead to the elimination of tailings lakes.

In fact, we are going to see a significant increase in tailings lakes. Even companies seeking to meet the new rules have reported that tailings will still grow from 843 million cubic metres in 2010 to 1.1 billion cubic metres by 2020.

Today, toxic tailings lakes cover 170 square kilometres - an area the size of the Vancouver, B.C. and bigger than such U.S. cities as Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh and Cleveland. For every barrel of oil produced, it is estimated that one and a half barrels of fluid tailings are created. Tailings lakes threaten wildlife (as evidenced in the deaths of 1,606 ducks in Syncrude's Aurora tailings lake in 2008), surface and groundwater, and pose a significant public liability.

So, it's no wonder the temptation is there for Stelmach to overpromise in order to avoid the "black eye" of Alberta. But the overpromising-under-delivering combo isn't going unchecked. Edmonton Journal columnist, Graham Thomson recently suggested that "on environmental issues, Alberta doesn't walk softly and carry a big stick; it talks loudly and carries a wet noodle."

We hope Stelmach won't be profiling his tough talk this week when he visits Washington D.C. If he does, Congress and the Obama administration might consider asking some tough questions before taking that language hook, line and sinker.

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