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Alberta strengthens environmental protections in the oil sands

As part of ongoing efforts to reduce the environmental impact of oil sands development, Alberta has introduced new steps to reduce tailings ponds and regulate the use of water from the Athabasca River. 

Minister Fawcett announces new surface water and tailings management framework

Minister Fawcett tours the C-FER Technologies research laboratory

The Tailings Management Framework focuses on getting tailings ponds remediated faster and slowing tailings ponds growth. Tailings are currently managed through the Alberta Energy Regulator’s directive 074, which does not set timelines for the remediation of existing ponds.

The Surface Water Quantity Management Framework establishes stringent water use requirements for both current and future mineable oil sands operators. At present, this industry uses one percent of water from the river annually. 

“Alberta’s oil sands region is already one of the most protected and regulated energy development areas in the world. To enhance this level of protection we need systems that continue to drive innovation. Industry must continually improve its management of wastes like tailings and respect the full range of water management opportunities that exist in the region.”

Kyle Fawcett, Minister of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development

Highlights of the tailings management framework include:

  • limiting the amount of tailings that can be accumulated,
  • pushing companies to invest in technology to remain within those constraints,
  • establishing firm thresholds to identify when companies must take action to prevent harm to the environment,
  • requiring companies to post additional financial security to deal with potential remediation issues through the Conservation and Reclamation Regulation, and
  • ensuring tailings are progressively treated and reclaimed throughout the project life-cycle and are ready-to-reclaim within 10 years of the end-of-mine-life of that project.

Highlights of the Surface Water Quantity Management Framework include:

  • requiring the majority of water used by existing operators and all water used by new operators to stop during low-flow periods;
  • restricting water use during these low-flow periods to a minimum for older operators who are technologically unable to stop all withdrawals;
  • establishing weekly triggers, which act as an early warning point before a limit is reached, and setting water withdrawal limits for all mineable oil sands operators, using best-available science; and
  • maintaining an adequate quantity of water for Aboriginal river navigation and pursuit of traditional activities.

The Alberta government worked with industry, Aboriginal groups, environmental non-governmental organizations and other stakeholders to develop these frameworks that will guide progress on environmental issues in the oil sands.

The Tailings Management Framework for the Mineable Athabasca Oil Sands and Surface Water Quantity Management Framework for the Lower Athabasca River were proposed under Alberta’s Lower Athabasca Regional Plan. The surface water quantity framework also supports the Water Conversation’s theme of managing industrial water use.

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