Wishful-thinking and fake regulation – on the ever expanding tailings ponds

In a speech given in April in Washington, DC, Alberta’s Premier claimed that oilsands “tailings ponds [will] disappear from Alberta’s landscape in the very near future.”  But it’s not true.  According to a report from the ERCB released in June not only are the tailings ponds not disappearing they are actually growing in size.  Matters aren’t getting better, they are getting worse.

The premier should know better.  It does not help her cause – convincing those with the power to approve new pipelines that Alberta is an environmentally responsible jurisdiction – to misstate the facts.  She may wish that she and the provincial governments before hers had taken the environmental impacts of the oil and gas industry more seriously.  But they and she didn’t.  That’s the truth the rest of the world is aware of and it is the truth with which she is going to have to live.

Although Albertans desperately need much better leadership, there is no reason to expect it of the current provincial government.  They see themselves as salespeople, not ethical leaders, and salespeople are prone to exaggerate the merits of their product.

To make matters worse, the ERCB, the agency with the responsibility to regulate the industry is also unreliable.

The report recently issued by the ERCB tells us that in 2009 – four years ago – it established a “directive” to curb expansion of the tailings ponds.  The report says the directive was issued in order “to slow the growing volumes of fluid tailings and the proliferation of tailings ponds.”  According to the ERCB the directive brings about “a fundamental shift in operators’ approach to tailings management” and requires that every project “must reduce its fluid tailings.”

Alas this is not true.  Even though all but one project failed to meet, or even come close, to the tailings reductions it was required to make, there have been no consequences whatsoever to the companies, as the ERCB has no intention to enforce the directive.  And does the ERCB promise to enforce these requirements in the future?  No, not even then.  The most the ERCB says is that it will think about enforcement when it next reports on tailings.  If in 2015 the companies “do not meet their tailings management performance expectations the ERCB will assess enforcement options.”

According to the Globe and Mail, an ERCB spokesperson excuses their failure to enforce the tailings directive on the basis that “these are complex operations.”  In other words, the ERCB did not understand what it was purporting to regulate when it issued the 2009 directive.  So why then was it allowing this activity – oilsands operations producing ever greater volumes of tailings – when it was incapable of properly protecting Albertans from its damaging consequences?

This is fake, not authentic, regulation and thus an affront to the dignity of Albertans and the rule of law.  The tailings ponds have been growing for decades.  The threat they pose is serious but not new.  The 2009 directive was issued in the wake of the 2008 dead ducks scandal in order, supposedly, to effect change.  But we see now that change has not occurred and the ERCB is not doing anything about it.

There is a lot of fluff in the ERCB’s recent report about how the companies have changed their approach to tailings ponds.  But even if they have, so what?  There is only one outcome of significance – the eradication of the tailings ponds.  And this is precisely what is not happening.

It doesn’t have to be like this.  Responsible resource regulation does not allow projects to go ahead until the regulator thoroughly understands the proposal and has put rules in place that will prevent any unacceptable impacts.  We are so far from this being the case with the oilsands it isn’t funny, it’s tragic.  The oilsands constitute a horrendous assault on northern Alberta’s land, water and people and, through huge releases of greenhouse gases, on the atmosphere.  And that assault is quite literally out of control.

A government that was serious about protecting Albertans’ environment and health would set meaningful regulations and enforce them.  This would mean that when companies do not meet regulatory expectations their operations are shut down until a workable solution is found to the problems leading to the regulatory breach.

We do not have this kind of government.  But we could.

By Janet Keeping, leader of the Green Party of Alberta

This opinion piece first appeared on the Troy Media website:  see http://www.troymedia.com/2013/06/17/albertas-oil-sands-tailings-ponds-growing/

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Comments 1

  • “A government that was serious about protecting Albertans’ environment and health would set meaningful regulations and enforce them.” Agreed! Furthermore such a government would NOT eliminate statutes such as the Energy Resources Conservation Act under the pretext of “streamlining” regulatory red tape let alone replace them with the Responsible Energy Development Act which gives the government absolute power over the new Alberta Energy Regulator and stacking the board to whom the Regulator reports with industry insiders like Gerry Protti.

    You’re absolutely right Janet, we do not have a government that is serious about protecting our environment and health, but we could. Thank you for showing us a way to get there.

    –Susan Wright