Skip to main content

Oil goes into a tailings pond at the Suncor tar sands operations near Fort McMurray, Alberta, September 17, 2014. Alberta’s toxic tailings ponds have become an emblem of what critics view as the energy industry’s disregard for the environment.

© Todd Korol / Reuters/REUTERS

Alberta and its energy watchdog are on the verge of rewriting regulations that are designed to clean up oil sands tailings ponds because industry players are unable to meet the existing rules.

The current standard, known as directive 74, has served as a cornerstone of the province's environmental talking points for the past six years.

Alberta's toxic tailings ponds have become an emblem of what critics view as the energy industry's disregard for the environment.

Story continues below advertisement

The ponds cover a total of about 77 square kilometres in different locations near oil sands mines in northern Alberta, hosting byproducts ranging from water, to clay, to residual bitumen. More than 100 migratory birds were killed after landing in three ponds last month, and 1,606 birds died in one pond in 2008.

Directive 74, introduced in 2009, was in part the regulator's response to the 2008 migratory mishap.

The current rules require companies to "reduce tailings and provide target dates for closure and reclamation of ponds"; and "lays out timelines for operators to process fluid tailings at the same rate they produce them, which will eliminate growth in fluid tailings," the Alberta government's website says.

The Energy Resources Conservation Board, the regulator at the time, backed away from its own rules in 2013 by not penalizing companies for missing the directive's first set of deadlines. The next compliance deadline is June, 2015.

Now, the provincial Progressive Conservatives are putting finishing touches on their tailings management framework. The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), an arm's-length regulator and successor to the ERCB, must then make sure directive 74's intended outcome matches the government's goals.

"It will be revised by the regulator," said Parker Hogan, a spokesman for Kyle Fawcett, the Minister of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development.

"What we have heard is that despite the best efforts and significant investments, companies have had significant challenges to achieve the requirements that are in directive 74," he said.

Story continues below advertisement

The plan will be designed to slow the rate of growth in tailings ponds, then later increase the pace of reclamation, Mr. Hogan said.

"Right now there are not a lot of other options, although there is [tailings] technology that is being worked on that may produce some very positive results," he said. "And certainly the discussions we've had with the sector and with their research group [Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance] show that the potential exists over the near term for them to be able to move forward on some of those new technologies, but we have to give them the opportunity to succeed."

Erin Flanagan, an analyst with environment think tank Pembina Institute, applauds the industry's progress on tailings technology, but argues that projects should not be approved until they can guarantee their ideas will work.

"Companies that cannot prove that they can clean up their tailings should not be allowed to operate," she said. Energy firms need to provide "commercial-scale evidence."

Jim Ellis, the AER's chief executive officer, said directive 74 was "developed without government policy." When the new framework is released, his agency will build rules that will "deliver" on the policy. The AER is providing "technical" and other advice to the government, he said.

"I'm not about to defend whether or not those targets are the right targets," he said in an interview. "That's not my role as the regulator."

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter