Alberta and Ottawa moved Monday to charge an energy heavyweight with breaking environmental laws after the industry - and the country - were humiliated last spring by the image of hundreds of oil-soaked ducks dying in a toxic byproduct of the oil sands.
Syncrude Canada Ltd. could face fines of up to $800,000 if convicted under provincial and federal environmental legislation in connection with the deaths of 500 waterfowl at one of its tailing ponds north of Fort McMurray, Alta.
The charges are the first of their kind against an oil sands company. They come as Alberta and Canada attempt to promote the resource as a safe, secure supply of energy at the same time as environmentalists are waging a "dirty oil" campaign against the so-called tar sands.
"I think we have an obligation not only to the environment, but to the public and to the credibility of our system if we don't lay charges," Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner told reporters Monday.
On April 28, 2008, the birds were found dead or dying in a toxic soup located along a migratory route for hundreds of thousands of waterfowl. Alberta requires effective bird deterrence by energy producers, but at the time, Syncrude explained that a spring snowstorm prevented the company from erecting noisemakers around the massive pond to scare away flocks.
Under the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, Syncrude could be fined up to $500,000 for failing to ensure that "a person who keeps, stores or transports a hazardous substance or pesticide shall do so in a manner that ensures that the hazardous substance does not directly or indirectly come into contact with or contaminate any animals, plants, food or drink."
Syncrude also has been charged federally under the Migratory Birds Convention Act for "allegedly depositing or permitting the deposit of a substance harmful to migratory birds in waters or an area frequented by birds." The maximum penalty is $300,000.
"We expect all Canadians and certainly Canadian companies operating in Canada to respect our environmental legislation and we will demand full accountability in law, in terms of any type of environmental problems," federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice told reporters in Ottawa.
Syncrude spokesman Alain Moore said this was the first time anything like this has occurred in the decades the company has been operating in the region.
"We feel horrible it happened. There's a huge resolve in our organization to make appropriate changes to prevent it from happening again," he said.
The company is scheduled to appear in Provincial Court in Fort McMurray on March 25.
Frustrated with how long it was taking governments to act, a member of the Sierra Club of Canada launched a private prosecution against the company last month. The joint prosecution by Ottawa and Alberta will now likely take precedence.
"It's nice to see that they've finally actually laid charges," said Mike Hudema, a spokesman for Greenpeace Canada. "It's unfortunate they are doing so by being spurred on by a private prosecution, and at the same time the fines under the legislation are ridiculously low."
Syncrude does not issue overall financial results, but, based on a rough calculation, an $800,000 fine represents less than an hour of production revenue from the mine.
Mr. Prentice said the Conservative government plans to introduce legislation to deal with environmental crimes, including "significantly increasing the penalties" for large companies that could reach the multimillion-dollar range.
Alberta Justice Minister Alison Redford said the province would push for "creative sentencing" options that focus on such things as technology and the environment.
Despite the charges against Syncrude and last week's announcement by Alberta's energy regulator to set new rules for the cleanup and management of tailings ponds, observers say it's too early to know whether this amounts to a crackdown that should worry the oil patch or improve Canada's reputation around the globe.
"Everybody is concerned about the environmental issues associated with the oil sands," said Duff Harper, an environmental lawyer with Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP in Calgary. "It seems to have become almost a rallying cry for a lot of people."
Mr. Hudema suggested the timing could be linked to U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Ottawa this month.
"I think that they're trying to do minor things to try to improve that image," he said, "especially leading into a presidential visit that could have major implications for the tar sands for sure."