Most of Canada's oil sands miners are unlikely to meet new timelines for cleaning up the vast volumes of toxic effluent they produce, according to a new analysis of corporate regulatory filings.
Some projects, including Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.'s Horizon and Imperial Oil Ltd.'s Kearl, which has not yet been built, will be at least a decade late in meeting provincial criteria designed to speed the processing of liquid tailings, a pair of environmental groups found after scrutinizing 900 pages of plans.
The industry has already produced tailings waste ponds the size of downtown Vancouver. Their presence - and growth - have helped generate widespread environmental opposition to the oil sands.
Although companies say they are working hard to diminish their environmental footprint, only two of nine oil sands mines have sketched out a way to meet the new tailings rules, a revelation that is likely to focus more scrutiny upon the industry.
"It's quite astonishing," said Simon Dyer, the oil sands program director at the Pembina Institute, which co-wrote the analysis with Water Matters, and wants many of the plans rejected. "I haven't seen regulatory applications before where companies submit things that apparently aren't compliant with the rules."
The rules announced last February set out dates and performance benchmarks for removing minute particles from liquid tailings. Tailings containing those particles are too dangerous to be released to the environment, but the particles will remain suspended in water for centuries if left alone. According to the new rules, half the particles must be removed from tailings production by 2013; separate guidelines require that those particles then be transformed into firm soil. Companies therefore have to develop technological solutions to speed the process.
Royal Dutch Shell PLC said it will be at least six years late in meeting the deadline at one mine, and 14 years late at another, and warned that it does not yet see a proven solution that will allow it to meet the guidelines. Syncrude Canada Ltd. plans to use a technology that has not yet been fully tested to gain compliance by 2015.
Suncor Energy Inc., however, has designed a new technique that it believes will allow it to meet the criteria. Suncor's new tailings technology does not yet have regulatory approval, but environmental groups cite it as evidence that a speedy solution is possible.
In separate interviews, officials with Imperial, Shell and Syncrude said they intend to comply with the spirit of the new rules. However, "developing and implementing new technologies on a commercial scale involves a degree of uncertainty that may impact the timing and performance of future tailings management schemes," Shell spokesman Phil Vircoe said.
Imperial argued that it needs "flexibility" with the time schedule, since its mine won't produce tailings until 2012, while Syncrude spokeswoman Cheryl Robb said "we're going to meet the long-term intent of the directive."
Mr. Dyer, however, accused industry of "bluffing the regulator by submitting clearly inadequate plans, seeing if that will fly."
The tailings cleanup plans were submitted to Alberta's petroleum regulator, the Energy Resources Conservation Board, in late September. The board has yet to finish its own evaluation, but plans to request additional information from some operators within the next few weeks.
"Companies are expected to be compliant with the regulations as they stand now. And if they are not compliant they won't be approved," said board spokesman Davis Sheremata, who made it clear that at least some of the applications would not be accepted as they currently stand.