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Liquid tailings dry at a Suncor oil sands operation. A report cited the company for not meeting targets for the ponds.

Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

A number of oil sands mining operations are failing to meet targets to slow the proliferation of tailing ponds, Alberta's energy regulator says.

A report from the province's Energy Resources Conservation Board challenges a key plank of the Redford government's plan to promote Alberta as a responsible energy producer, and its pledge that the turbid tailings ponds containing the byproducts of bitumen production will soon be a thing of the past. During the Premier's April trade mission to Washington, D.C., Alison Redford said "tailings ponds [will] disappear from Alberta's landscape in the very near future" and environmental rules dictate that "the companies who do use mines and tailings must completely halt the growth of fluid tailings ponds by 2016."

While some progress has been made, the ERCB – which regulates oil and gas operations across the province – says the overall volume of oil sands fluids tailings is large and growing. There are now 925 million cubic metres of fluid tailings in the province, compared to 725 million cubic metres four years ago.

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This is despite its Directive 74, introduced in 2009 and meant to be the first step in a broader initiative to address public concerns and curtail the growth of toxic tailings ponds. The ERCB now says reduction goals set three years ago were "optimistic" and the companies won't face penalties because of the problems they've encountered implementing the costly technologies to capture the oil sands waste. The report adds pressure on companies already spending hundreds of millions of dollars to live up to the tailings regulations.

"With the exception of Syncrude, nobody made the achievement that they committed to and the plans that were approved back in 2010," Terry Abel, an executive manager for the ERCB, said in an interview.

A report released this month examined four mines, and found at least three – the one owned by Suncor Energy Inc., and two of Shell Canada Ltd.'s mines – aren't meeting their targets for capturing and drying fine tailings, or the silts and clays 44 micrometres or less that take decades to settle. While tailings ponds help companies recycle water in the short term, solid leftover deposits are considered more desirable in the longer term, as they allow land to be "reclaimed" and used for other purposes. Syncrude's Mildred Lake mine exceeded its capture targets in 2011, but missed them in 2012.

"We're disappointed the progress is not faster. But we're satisfied that they're doing what they need to do," Mr. Abel said. "We have to acknowledge that technically, these are complex operations."

The report said Shell argued with the ERCB over the results at its Muskeg River mine, and the company was not credited with any tailings capture at its Jackpine mine. Shell spokesman David Williams said the company is "disappointed with the report" but says it will work with the ERCB. "We fully support the long-term objective to minimize and eventually eliminate long-term storage of fluid tailings," he said in an e-mail.

At Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) – an industry group focused on improvements in environmental performance – Alan Fair said companies are only in the early stages of Directive 74. "If you don't do it in year 1 or 2, then you've got to catch up in year 4 or 5. People ought to be focused more on the longer term."

But the next ERCB report assessing the performance of oil sands companies in the push to reduce fluid tailings won't be released until 2015. Environmental groups say this year's report is a clear sign it's irresponsible to approve new oil sands projects when mine operators are failing to meet current regulations.

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"Promises of responsible oil sands development ring hollow when the ERCB is not enforcing its own tailings rules," the Pembina Institute's Jennifer Grant said in an e-mail.

Alberta's Environment Minister Diana McQueen said that within the next month, the province will be consulting on a larger framework that will also deal with "legacy" tailings ponds – the ones that already exist. However, she didn't address how the report squares with the Premier's comments.

"Industry must reclaim their ponds, all of their ponds," Ms. McQueen said. "Our commitment is to make that sure that we hold industry accountable."

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