Alberta Government chooses oil over water: new rules bow to corporate interests

Coalition of groups slam release of pro-industry water usage rules for the oil sands industry

VANCOUVER, March 13, 2015 /CNW/ - Today, Keepers of the Athabasca, Environmental Defence Canada and the Natural Resources Defense Council criticized the Alberta government for its decision to adopt weak new environmental regulations governing water usage in the oil sands industry today. The long-awaited Surface Water Quantity Framework (SWQF) and Tailings Management Framework set guidelines on how much water oil sands companies can extract from the Athabasca River, and guidelines regarding the management and production of toxic tailings waste.

"These new rules read like an oil industry wish list. Minister Jim Prentice promised Alberta would be a world leader in the conservation and the environmental protection, but instead he has ignored First Nations, local communities and science in the name of corporate interests. Albertans will be disappointed to learn their government has bowed to corporate lobbying and put industry interests above our environment. It's corporate power run amok," Emma Pullman, Senior Campaigner at corporate watchdog group said.

The new policies will pose a threat to the health of the Athabasca River system and one of the world's largest freshwater deltas, which is home to species including moose, bison and wolves. The River is a vital source of drinking water, an important wetland habitat, and supports two national and thirty provincial parks.

Today's rules do not include an "Ecosystem Base Flow"-- as a best practice that would have protected the river from catastrophic damage during rare low-flow events. Instead the rules give a major exemption to oil sands giants Suncor (SU) and Syncrude to extract water directly from the Athabasca  even if water levels are dangerously low. Furthermore, the the water management framework is entirely voluntary. To ensure protection of the ecosystem and river, there needs to be enforced legal limits for oil sands companies. Already, over 30,000 Canadians have signed a petition calling on Premier Jim Prentice to go back to the drawing board and release policy that actually protects the Athabasca River.

"First Nations and Métis people made clear the need for stronger water withdrawal limits, and we're disappointed to see that the government has decided bow to the interests of industry. The LARP (Lower Athabasca Regional Plan), JOSM (Joint Oilsands Monitoring), and AEMERA (The Alberta Environmental Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting Agency) all lack Indigenous inclusion," said Jesse Cardinal of Keepers of the Athabasca.

"The provincial government needs to go back to the drafting table and come up with legislation that sets these minimum flow requirements without exception. And companies such as Suncor need to accept that there is no basis for any company having weaker rules to adhere to," said Adam Scott of Environmental Defence.

"The Government of Alberta routinely lobbies in the United States claiming the province has strong environmental standards guiding tar sands development.  And yet, here is another example announcing weak regulations that favors the industry and certainly fails to demonstrate leadership," said Danielle Droitsch, the Canada Project Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. has targeted Suncor for seeking exemptions to the new water rules. Instead of investing in sufficient water storage facilities or exploring water-sharing options, the company pushed for - and won - an exemption from the bare minimum standard. The company also has a track record of numerous environmental violations.

About is a movement with over 700,000 people in Canada speaking with one voice to counterbalance the growing power of large corporations. 

SumOfUs petition:
Campaign website:  
Backgrounder on the Surface Water Quantity Framework:

About Keepers of t​he Athabasca

Keepers of the Athabasca is working unite the peoples of the Athabasca River and Lake Watershed to secure and protect water and watershed lands for ecological, social, cultural and community health and well being.

About Environmental D​efence

Environmental Defence is Canada's most effective environmental action organization. We challenge, and inspire change in government, business and people to ensure a greener, healthier and prosperous life for all.

About Natural Resources Defense Council

NRDC is the most effective environmental action group in the United States, combining the grassroots power of 1.4 million members and online activists with the courtroom clout and expertise of nearly 500 lawyers, scientists and other professionals.

About the Surface Water Quantity Framework (SWQF)

The SWQF is a component under the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan (LARP) and is managed by Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development and the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans. It was meant as a permanent solution to replace the interim Water Management Framework: Instream Flow Needs and Water Management System for the Lower Athabasca River, implemented in 2007.

The Phase 2 Framework Committee, consisting of oil sands companies and interested stakeholders, was struck in 2008 and provided recommendations in 2010.

All members of the Phase 2 Framework Committee – including oil sands companies – agreed in principle on the need for an Ecosystem Base Flow. This would mean that, once the water level fell below a certain level, no more water could be removed, in order to protect the watershed.

When the Committee could not agree on the Ecosystem Base Flow Exemption, the recommendations were sent to the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat for review. The review was conducted by five experts from Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), the Province of Alberta (Sustainable Resource Development and Environment), private industry, First Nations, environmental non-government organizations and academia. The Science Advisory Report was presented to the Governments of Canada and Alberta in September, 2010, clearly recommending an Ecosystems Base Flow for the Lower Athabasca River.

About the Tailings Management Framework

The TMF is another a policy within the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan (LARP). Under the policy, each mine that began production after 2007 would be subject to a 60 million m3 tailings limit. The Government of Alberta is moving away from annual reduction targets towards lump-sum targets at the end of mine life. This leaves open questions about enforcement or auditing of tailings volumes, as well as tracking how companies are doing relative to their targets on an annual basis in the lead up to retiring a mine.

Instead of setting targets for cumulative tailings liquid, the government has planned to levy additional fees as liability against the cost of tailings reclamation. If companies met the tailings volume reduction targets, they would have their funds returned.

A major concern in the TMF is the issue of process affected water (PAW). Industry advocated for a change to the zero-discharge policy -- and to be able to discharge process affected water (PAW) back into the lower Athabasca River.

The TMF discussion also suggests that many industry players believe that End-Pit Lakes (EPLs) will be proven at a commercial level in the near future. The Government is continuing to tout its "conditional approval" language for EPLs. There was no indication that the Government is seriously considering a moratorium on EPLs, even though the technology is not proven.

Prior to the TMF, the Alberta government implemented Directive 74 to manage growing volumes of toxic tailings waste from oil sands mining. It required companies to capture and dry 50 per cent of fine tailings particles. To date, no company has met requirements under Directive 74; Suncor had captured just 8.5% by 2013.

First Nations were not consulted on the draft plan.

SOURCE: ForestEthics Advocacy

For further information: Emma Pullman, Senior Campaigner, 778-887-6776, (Vancouver); Jesse Cardinal, Keepers of the Athabasca, 780-404-5053, (Edmonton); Adam Scott, Environmental Defence, (416-570-2878), (Toronto); Jack Thompson, Natural Resources Defense Council, (202.289.2387), (Washington, D.C.)