The oil sands: ‘The risks will endure’

| December 1, 2010 | 0 Comments
The oil sands and Athabasca River in Alberta as seen through an airplane window's glare. The Athabasca River flows past a tailings pond.

The oil sands and Athabasca River in Alberta as seen through an airplane window's glare. The Athabasca River flows past a tailings pond.

For more than 40 years, the Alberta oil sands mining industry has produced bitumen — a mixture of heavy hydrocarbons that can be upgraded and refined into petroleum products. With each barrel of product, the industry also produces more than 1.5 barrels of a persistent waste with the consistency of yogurt. Mature Fine Tailings (MFT), as the waste is known, is produced when the fine particles in the tailings settle for two to three years. MFT may persist without significant further consolidation for centuries. It is too toxic to be released to the aquatic environment and too fluid to serve as a substrate for dry land reclamation.
The mining industry has explored a variety of ways to treat MFT, but very little of the waste stream is actually treated. More the 840 million cubic meters of MFT has accumulated to date and the inventory is steadily climbing, with an estimated 66 and 72 million cubic meters added from 2008 and 2009 bitumen production respectively.
The growing inventory of MFT poses risks to the environment, an expense to industry, an impediment to efficient resource recovery for the regulator and a growing unsecured financial liability. The industry’s present practice of producing ever-increasing quantities of MFT and stockpiling it is not sustainable.
The oil sands industry has long promised that technological innovation would produce a solution; however, the primary technology used over the past 15 years has proven ineffective in curbing the continued growth of MFT. Mine operators are now scrambling to implement new yet unproven tailings technologies.
Meanwhile, the industry hopes to eventually dispose of the majority of its inventory of MFT in so-called End Pit Lakes, that is, repositories for waste covered in fresh water. This is an unproven – some would say dubious – plan.
The expanding scope of the problem attests that there has been ineffective regulation to limit or reduce the tailings liability. Alberta regulators continue to grant concessions to the industry that are at odds with achieving effective tailings reclamation results. The requirements of a fledgling tailings regulation introduced in 2009 are not being enforced. This must change.
Given the scale of the current tailings liability, it is unclear at this point if new technology can eventually provide a solution. The industry has failed over four decades of mining to address the problem. Significant investments have been made in research and development yet the tailings inventory continues to grow.
The only true measure of progress in tailings reclamation is whether current tailings inventories are increasing or declining. Strong measures to stop the continued growth of MFT must be enacted if we are to avoid passing the accrued liability to future generations to remedy. One way to bring the problem under control would be to make the continued mining of bitumen conditional upon successful tailings reclamation performance.

Canadians weighed in on both sides of [this] issue in April, 2008, when 1,600 ducks perished in Syncrude’s Aurora North tailings lake. The federal and Alberta governments responded with charges under the Migratory Birds Convention Act (MBCA) and the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act. The court found Syncrude guilty and convicted the company on both charges [and fined it $3 million].
The Syncrude incident was serious and regrettable but it would be far more devastating if any of North America’s largest migratory bird, the endangered whooping crane, were to alight on a tailings pond.
Such a scenario is not outside the realm of possibility. Twice every year, the 260 birds or so that comprise the last remaining wild population of whooping cranes in the world fly near oil sands tailings lakes as they migrate between wintering grounds at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas and nesting habitat in Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park. An unfortunate stop in a tailings lake could negate the efforts to conserve the species that have been underway since the whooping crane was declared endangered in 1967. Any convictions under the MBCA that might result would fail to compensate for the loss.
If a Syncrude tailings lake can destroy 1,600 migratory birds in one day, it or another of the 17 other tailings lakes scattered over the landscape in northern Alberta could do so again. In fact as this report was being finalized, there were reports that more migratory waterfowl have landed and perished in oil sands tailing lakes. [Editor’s note: At the end of October, 350 ducks died after landing in a tailings lake.]
The risk of bird mortality will exist as long as tailings lakes exist. This risk will extend into the future with potentially toxic end-pit lakes — by design, far more enticing to migratory birds than barren tailings lakes — situated near the flyway.
The United Nations has designated 2011 International Year of Forests and in the most recent of the forest assessments it has conducted every five years since 1946, it reports that the rate of deforestation shows signs of decreasing, but is still “alarmingly high.”
Even former industry representatives recognize that tailings remediation performance has been inadequate. In a recent Edmonton Journal news article, retired Shell Canada CEO Clive Mather said it is time the industry provided a clear plan and a timeline to eliminate tailings ponds. Mr. Mather maintains there is no reason for tailings ponds to exist any longer and that the industry has the tools available to clean up tailings. All it needs is the direction to do so.
Bruce Friesen, former land and environment manager for Syncrude, also spoke to the issue in an interview just prior to his retirement in 2007 when he said: “Land reclamation is serious business involving serious money. It’s not trivial — it is vital to the industry. We know that we can reclaim the mine sites we are developing. If we don’t know how to do that, then we have no right to disturb the land.” Many Canadians would agree with Mr. Friesen.
The oil sands industry has created a monumental environmental liability in Northern Alberta by allowing the volume of MFT to continuously grow over four decades of mining. Efforts by the Alberta government to hold the industry responsible for mitigating its waste have failed to achieve the necessary results. There are, however, steps that both industry and government can take to remedy the situation.
If  the companies operating in Alberta’s oil sands are unable or unwilling to responsibly reclaim their mine tailings, the companies should forfeit both the social and the regulatory licenses they need to continue operating.

In October, WWF Canada published a major study (“Tailings: A Lasting Oil Sands Legacy”) on the environmental consequences of Alberta’s oil sands tailings ponds. This article is an excerpt from this report.

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