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.
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.
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."