Tailing behind schedule

EDMONTON — An environmental think-tank says few of Alberta’s oilsands companies will be able to meet new provincial rules on cleaning up their vast, expanding and highly toxic tailings ponds.

EDMONTON — An environmental think-tank says few of Alberta’s oilsands companies will be able to meet new provincial rules on cleaning up their vast, expanding and highly toxic tailings ponds.

The Pembina Institute reviewed the cleanup plans of nine different oilsands projects and concluded that only two — both owned by Suncor — will be able to meet rules enacted last February by the provincial regulator.

“Companies have submitted plans that don’t comply with the directive,” Simon Dyer, one of the co-authors of the report, said Tuesday.

“It’s essential for the credibility of the (Energy Resources Conservation Board) that the ERCB does follow through and take the range of enforcement actions that are open to them.”

The board says it is still evaluating the plans, but some of the companies involved say the rules need more flexibility.

Last February, the board outlined new rules that give oilsands operators a mandatory timeline to convert their waste ponds into solid, stable piles of dry sand and silt.

The ponds, which now cover a greater area than the city of Vancouver, have been targets for international criticism of Alberta’s environmental record, especially after hundreds of migrating ducks died after landing on one of them.

The operators were to begin turning at least 20 per cent of the fine particles in their waste streams into solid waste by June 30, 2011. That figure was to rise to 50 per cent by 2013.

But after examining their proposals filed last September, the institute concludes that almost none of the operators will meet those timelines.

Canadian Natural Resources (TSX:CNQ) doesn’t plan to start collecting dry tailings until 2015 and won’t be completely compliant until 2025. Imperial Oil’s (TSX:IMO) Kearl project won’t have its first dry disposal site until 2018.

Shell’s (TSX:SHC) Muskeg River mine won’t meet the rules until 2019; its Jackpine project will take until 2027. Syncrude’s (TSX:COS.UN, IMO, PCA, NXY) three projects will all be several years late.

“The international community is looking closely to see if the governments of Alberta and Canada are serious about environmental management of this industry,” said Dyer.

Energy board spokesman David Sheremata said experts are still analyzing the cleanup plans and there’s unlikely to be a decision on who meets the rules before the new year.

“If our staff are not satisfied that they comply with our requirements, we will not approve them,” Sheremata said.

Penalties range from increased audits and inspections to shutting a facility down.

“We have the power to shut a facility and basically make it impossible for a company to continue harvesting a resource until they come back into compliance with our regulations,” Sheremata said. “We’ve done it before.”

Imperial Oil spokesman Pius Rolheiser said the board’s regulations don’t account for the fact some of the facilities are still under construction and need more time to pick the most appropriate technology. Imperial may be starting out slower than regulations stipulate, but the project will ultimately meet the board’s goal of eliminating tailings ponds, he said.

“We completely support the intent of (the new rules). We’re asking for some flexibility in how and when the guidelines are applied. The board has led us to believe that they appreciate our need for some flexibility.”

That message was echoed by Shell spokesman Philip Vircoe.

“We will continue to work with the ERCB on the specific details and timeline for compliance,” he wrote in an email.

“Our plan is based on technologies and techniques that we believe meet the intent and requirements of (the new rules).”

Dyer points out that oilsands operators were involved in writing the regulations. As well, he notes that Suncor’s cleanup plans — which involve one of the oldest and one of the newest oilsands mines — suggest that the guidelines can be met.

“There’s actually an astonishing element of companies thinking they can bluff the regulator and these rules are somehow optional,” he said.

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