Straight Outta Edmonton: The Case for Science in Developing the Oilsands

“The debate about oil-sands extraction has become polarized, with players cast as either totally against, or for developing the sands rapidly without regard for environmental consequences. Both positions are based on very little evidence. A more moderate approach, with the pace of development based on solid environmental science, would be better in the long run.”

Dr. David Schindler, “Tar Sands Need Solid Science,” Nature, November 25, 2010.

I support the Alberta Oilsands. I believe they are fundamental to the future prosperity of this province and Canada as a whole.

However, I don’t agree with how they are being developed. Our current development strategy fails to fully appreciate the tremendous value and responsibility that comes with the oilsands, in terms of the economy, environment, and legacy for future generations. From royalty rates to environmental monitoring, there are serious issues with the efficacy and consequences of current regimes.

A major issue is the lack of credible, scientific, peer-reviewed oilsands data to inform the public and policy makers on how to exactly develop the resource. How are Albertans expected to effectively participate in policy discussions concerning development when accurate information and studies are hidden from them? How are politicians able to develop an adequate long-term vision of the resource when they rely on pseudoscience?

Without accurate, scientific data, decisions are left to be made by individuals influenced by propaganda or innuendo. As citizens, we cannot allow the province to continue governing like this, particularly with projected development expected to expand significantly within the next decade. As Dr. David Schindler outlines in the above mentioned article, the stakes are too high.

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Straight Outta Edmonton: Questions Emerge After Alberta Environment Minister Outlines Tailings Pond Safety

I wrote to Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner two weeks ago inquiring what, if any, plan the Alberta Government had to deal with a tailings breach.

Here’s what Minister Renner wrote back:

Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner on Tailings Breaches in Alberta

The answer is not surprising. In the letter, Renner provides few details to support broad statements such as Alberta tailings ponds are carefully regulated and the province has a strategy that can adequately deal with a tailings breach.

This Pembina Institute document (pages 19-24) and blog post outlines the history of tailings breaches in Alberta, what the consequences of a new tailings breach would be, and the lack of government transparency with respect to provincial regulations governing tailings ponds, pond safety and breach response plans. As the chart below clearly indicates, since much of the regulations, safety assessments, and emergency response plans are kept secret, the Alberta Government and Oilsands Industry are the only one who know how safe the tailings ponds are, who’s at risk if a breach occurs, and how prepared we are to respond to a breach.

In an interview I had with renowned ecologist Dr. David Schindler, he stressed that a breach would have catastrophic consequences, particularly if one occurred during the winter. According to Schindler, a breach in winter would allow the toxins to be submerged under the ice for at least four months before any recovery operation could begin. This is because there is no known way to clean a tailings breach under ice.

Consequently, pollutants would easily disperse, being “in Lake Athabasca in about a week, all the way down the Slave within three to four, probably in much of the Mackenzie after that.” Meaning, not only would a tailings breach effect downstream communities in northern Alberta, but also in the Northwest Territories.

(Tar Island 1 is now Wapisiw Lookout)

This is interesting because in his letter, Minister Renner states:

“Under Alberta’s Water Act, oil sands companies are required to document in an Emergency Preparedness Plan the extent of the area that would be affected if a breach of their tailings structures occurred. Potential downstream effects must be identified, as well as the assigned roles and responsibilities of staff to deal with the breach. Each group downstream, with the potential to be affected by the breach, must have a copy of the Emergency Preparedness Plan.” (6th Paragraph)

If all oilsands companies that operate tailings ponds are mandated to provide each “group” downstream (which I interpret to mean oilsands companies — though I’m not sure since the wording is ambiguous) with a copy of their Emergency Preparedness Plan, how come Albertans as a whole are not allowed similar access? As the Pembina Institute points out, current provincial legislation allows companies to keep these plans private.

Shouldn’t downstream communities be aware of the risk they are placed in and what measures oilsands companies have in case of a breach?

Further, if Dr. Schindler is correct and a tailings breach in winter would allow pollutants to travel rapidly without an opportunity to stop the spread for months, should the Alberta Government not share this information with the Northwest Territories?

In the wake of more ducks landing in Northern Alberta tailings ponds this week, many have called on the province and industry to eradicate wet tailings ponds quicker. Seldom attention is paid to the larger consequences of tailings ponds, as well as the risk they pose to surrounding communities — particularly if a breach occurred.

To me, this is a more compelling reason to phase out wet tailings ponds immediately.

UPDATE: Alex Denonville, a reporter with the Slave River Journal, is reporting that the Alberta Government’s Canadian Dam Association: Dam Safety Guidelines is only available for a $60 fee. Why the steep fee when the document is in the public interest? It should be easily accessible by all.

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