Oil sands regulator does not enforce toxic tailings rules

Syncrude is given a pass to delay liquid tailings clean up

One day after Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach announced he would "force an end to tailings ponds," Alberta's oil sands regulator, the Alberta Energy and Resources Conservation Board (ERCB), has approved plans for Syncrude that do not comply with Alberta's Directive 074 and would delay implementation of liquid tailings clean up by the oil sands company.

"Despite the tough talk about cleaning up tailings, Alberta has accepted a plan from Syncrude that does not comply with its own rules to clean up tailings waste," says Joe Obad, interim executive director for Water Matters.

In September 2009, nine oil sands operations submitted plans to deal with liquid tailings from the oil sands extraction process. An analysis of the plans by the Pembina Institute and Water Matters concluded that seven out of nine operations have submitted plans that were not compliant with Directive 074.

Since then, the ERCB has been meeting with companies behind closed doors to assess the plans. On April 23, the ERCB announced decisions on three plans, and will be accepting all three plans, despite the fact that two of the plans, for Syncrude's Mildred Lake and Aurora oil sands mines, do not meet the requirements.

The ERCB's press release validates the Pembina Institute and Water Matters analysis that the Syncrude plans do not meet the requirements of the Directive 074.

The directive specifies a phase-in approach for tailings reductions. The ERCB explains it in terms of "fines captures," which means that of the total liquid tailings being produced, a certain percentage must be made solid. As evidenced in the chart below, Syncrude's approval conditions fail to meet the requirements.

Critical Date Directive 74
Performance Requirement
(% Fines Capture)
Syncrude Mildred Lake
(% Fines Capture)
Syncrude Aurora
(% Fines Capture)
June 30, 2011 20% 9.3% --
June 30, 2012 30% 14.6% 10.9%
June 30, 2013 50% 14.8% --
2014 onwards 50% 9.3% --

The ERCB reports that tailings lakes have grown by 40 square kilometres in the past year to now cover 170 square kilometres (a volume of 840 billion litres), providing further evidence the problem of tailings waste continues to grow.

Tailings are toxic and cannot be released into the environment. They are created during the oil sands extraction process, and are a fluid mixture of water, sand, silt clay, unrecovered hydrocarbons and dissolved chemicals.

Tailings lakes pose an ongoing threat to surface water and groundwater through seepage, could become a significant public liability if a company cannot cover the cleanup costs, and pose a mortality risk to waterfowl. The growing legacy of toxic tailings is a concern, making compliance with Directive 074 all the more important.

"Oil sands environmental regulations should not be negotiable," Simon Dyer, oil sands program director for the Pembina Institute, says. He continues, "Not enforcing environmental rules stifles innovation and the clean up that is required, is unfair to companies that are proposing to address the tailings problem and further damages Alberta's and Canada's reputation."

Dyer added: "Yesterday the Premier clearly stated that the government must be prepared to push companies much harder to prevent new liquid tailings and clean up existing tailings. We encourage the Premier to empower the ERCB with the formal policy direction it needs to do just that."


For more information, contact:

Simon Dyer

Oil Sands Program Director
The Pembina Institute
Tel: 403-322-3937
[email protected]

Joe Obad
Interim Executive Director
Water Matters
Tel: 403-585-5826
[email protected]

The backgrounder and Pembina Institute/Water Matters assessment report are available for download from www.oilsandswatch.org .