Alberta releases new plan for oil sands tailings management

New rules will be backed up by possible financial penalties.

March 13, 2015   by The Canadian Press

EDMONTON — The Alberta government has released a new plan for managing oil sands tailings ponds that it says will encourage companies to generate less of the toxic waste water and clean it up sooner.

Environment Minister Kyle Fawcett says operators will have clear guidelines on how big their tailings ponds can be during mine operations and how large they will be allowed to be when it closes. Those rules will be backed up by possible financial penalties, he said.

That combination of oversight and enforcement over the life of the mine will force companies to keep pushing for the technological breakthrough on tailings cleanup that has so far remained elusive, said Fawcett.

“Technology unlocked the oil sands,” he said. “It will be key to finding the long-term, effective solutions to tailings ponds management.”

The 220 square kilometres of tailings – a toxic mix of water, silt, leftover bitumen and solvents – have long been one of the industry’s toughest environmental challenges. Separating the water from the contaminants on a scale big enough to meet the need remains a challenge.

The framework replaces an earlier attempt at forcing industry to address the problem. But those deadlines, passed in 2009, were soon delayed when industry found it couldn’t meet them.

Fawcett said the new regulations won’t meet the same fate.

“I sat down with all of the CEOs on minable oil sands companies and looked them eyeball to eyeball and asked them if they are comfortable with this framework. They told me yes.”

Much of the detail on the new framework will be created by the Alberta Energy Regulator, including details on enforcement and penalties. As well, specific rules on tailings pond size will be created for each project, although all will be required to have no more than five years of accumulated tailings in their pond at the end of mine life.

At the same time, the government also released new rules for the oil sands on water use from the Athabasca River.

The average total allowable water use will be cut nearly in half. No withdrawals at all will be allowed during low-flow periods, except for the older mines.

Although the government says the new guidelines will preserve the river’s ecosystem and allow for aboriginal use of its water, it has previously been harshly criticized for relying too much on computer modelling of the river levels and not enough on in-the-field science of what it actually needs.

© 2015 The Canadian Press

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