Alberta’s energy regulator ignoring own rules on tailings ponds: critics

EDMONTON — Alvaro Pinto wants Alberta’s energy regulator to follow its own oilsands rules.

The director of sustainability for the Fort McKay First Nation — a community surrounded by oilsands developments — said he doesn’t understand how the agency can say it’s going to enforce one thing, then allow industry to do something else.

“We are very disappointed,” said Pinto, an environmental engineer who has worked in the industry around the world. “The Alberta Energy Regulator is simply ignoring its own directive.”

Since last fall, the regulator has given interim approval to five plans for remediating oilsands tailings ponds. The approvals have come despite the regulator’s own reservations.

Spokespeople for the agency say the approvals are not the final word and deficiencies must be addressed. They say the public is being protected and industry needs time and flexibility to come up with a solution it’s already spent billions searching for.

But, with two more decisions to come, critics are increasingly concerned the province is drifting toward methods that no one is sure will fix significant environmental problems. Some say it’s time the government brings in hard targets for remediation and penalties for failure.

“That’s going to drive innovation, if you tighten the screws enough,” said Jodi McNeill of the Pembina Institute, a clean-energy think tank.

The challenge is what to do with 1.3 trillion litres of toxic tailings that have been accumulating since oilsands mining started more than 50 years ago. The tailings water holds minuscule particles of chemically tainted silt.

Industry has been working to find a way to deal with that $27-billion cleanup liability without ultimate success.

“Nobody has a proven, acceptable way to get these tailings ponds ready to reclaim,” said Mark Taylor, the regulator’s vice-president of operations.

Plans from most operators rely heavily on end-pit lakes. Tailings water would be pumped into a deep pit, then “capped” with fresh water.

End-pit lakes have not been approved, said Taylor. Recent decisions only give companies permission to go ahead and work on them. Operators must return to the regulator in several years and show progress.

“If industry can prove that end-pit lakes are in the best interests of all Albertans and of the environment, then we haven’t precluded it.”

Taylor said there are interim goals to slow and eventually stop the growth of tailings ponds. They must be ready for final cleanup 10 years after a mine closes — although actual reclamation will take decades longer.

As well, all companies must file a Plan B.

Pinto is not reassured.

“Postponing into the future, for some technology that’s going to come, doesn’t give me any comfort. There are things they could be doing right now and they are not.”

For example, new tailings ponds should have to be lined, Pinto suggested.

As well, he pointed out, nobody’s looking at what the cumulative effect of dozens of proposed end-pit lakes would be.

“What’s the consequence of having unknown water quality for so many years on a landscape?” Pinto asks. “It’s been 40 years and we haven’t seen any end-pit lake that’s reliable.”

McNeill said standards and deadlines are too flexible.

Industry is allowed to propose its own criteria for what constitutes treated tailings. In some cases, that has allowed companies to propose letting their ponds grow for decades to come, despite the regulator’s goal.

“There’s so little guidance and so little clarity provided that industry’s been given a huge amount of latitude,” she said. “The consequence of that is that they’ve come to the table with these unambitious and vague criteria that form the linchpin of their plans.”

Both McNeill and Pinto said it’s time for the government to impose enforceable standards and heavy fines.

“We’ve seen this approach now for five decades of regulating this problem with kid gloves,” McNeill said. ”This liability is only going to continue to grow. “

Taylor said the regulator has been tough when needed and has forced some temporary shutdowns.

“We have a wide suite of enforcement tools that we can compel you to get back on the right path.”

Environment Minister Shannon Phillips said the current rules have only been in place since 2015 and were revised last October. She said more time is needed.

“If the current approach is not (getting) results, then I think the province will have to take a more prescriptive approach,” she said.

“We’re not quite there yet. We want to see all the plans. We want to see some of the outcomes of the technologies we’ve invested in.”

About one thing all parties agree. As Phillips put it:

“This is one of the more significant environmental challenges and technology challenges on the continent.”

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