Alberta introduces oil sands environmental requirements

Alberta introduced new requirements to control tailings ponds and regulate water use from the Athabasca River as part of the Canadian province’s efforts to reduce oil sands development impacts.

Alberta introduced new requirements to control tailings ponds and regulate water use from the Athabasca River as part of the Canadian province’s efforts to reduce oil sands development impacts.

“Alberta’s oil sands region is already one of the most protected and regulated energy development areas in the world,” Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development Minister Kyle Prentice said as the two new regulations were announced on Mar. 13.

“To enhance this level of protection, we need systems that continue to drive innovation,” Prentice said. “Industry must continually improve its management of wastes like tailings, and respect the full range of water management opportunities that exist in the region.”

The Tailings Management Framework focuses on getting tailings ponds remediated faster and slowing tailings ponds growth. Tailings are currently managed through the Alberta Energy Regulator’s directive 074, which does not set timelines for the remediation of existing ponds, the ministry said.

It said the framework’s highlights include limiting the amount of tailings that can be accumulated, pushing companies to invest in technology to remain within those constraints, establishing firm thresholds to identify when companies must take action to prevent environmental harm, and requiring companies to post additional financial security to deal with potential remediation issues through the Conservation and Reclamation Regulation.

Oil sands operators also will be required to ensure tailings are progressively treated and reclaimed throughout the project’s life-cycle and are ready-to-reclaim within 10 years of the end-of-mine-life of that project, it indicated.

Surface water framework

The ministry said the Surface Water Quantity Management Framework establishes stringent water use requirements for both current and future mineable oil sands operators. At present, this industry uses 1%/year of water from the river, it noted.

This framework requires the majority of water used by existing operators and all water used by new operators stop when the rivers flow is low; restricts water use during these periods to a minimum for older operators who are technologically unable to stop all withdrawals; and establishes weekly triggers, which act as an early warning point before a limit is reached, and sets water withdrawal limits for all mineable oil sands operators, using best-available science; and maintains an adequate quantity of water for Aboriginal river navigation and pursuit of traditional activities.

The ministry said Alberta’s government worked with industry, Aboriginal groups, environmental nongovernmental organizations and other stakeholders to develop these frameworks that will guide progress on environmental issues in the oil sands.

Four environmental organizations immediately criticized the new regulations. “These new rules read like an oil industry wish list,” Emma Pullman, a Senior Campaigner at corporate watchdog group SumOfUs.org, said on Mar. 13 in Vancouver, BC.

She said Minister Prentice promised Alberta would be a world leader in the conservation and the environmental protection, “but instead he has ignored First Nations, local communities, and science in the name of corporate interests.” Keepers of the Athabasca, Environmental Defence Canada, and the Natural Resources Defense Council also said the new regulations were inadequate.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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