Co-written by Gillian Chow-Fraser, Boreal Program Manager at CPAWS Northern Alberta
There are massive tailings ponds leaking toxic water into the Athabasca River in Northern Alberta. Our recent report showed just how big these “ponds” are – and it seems that we got the oil industry’s attention, because they’re pushing back.
The report used satellite images and showed that the area taken by these tailings “ponds” has grown 300 per cent. The term ponds is hardly appropriate given the size of these massive bodies of toxic water, a byproduct of mining oil in the Alberta oilsands.
Today, we are debunking four myths about oil sands tailings “ponds.”
MYTH: Many tailings ponds have already been reclaimed.
FACT: No tailings ponds are officially reclaimed.
The return of an area to its pre-industrial state is known as reclamation, and the Alberta Energy Regulator is charged with certifying areas as reclaimed once they meet certain criteria.
The Alberta Energy Regulator has confirmed that no tailings have ever been certified reclaimed to date. In fact, across the entire oil sands region, only one square kilometer of the total area disturbed by mining operations has ever been certified reclaimed. The reclaimed area was a small portion of an old Syncrude mine, which does not include tailings.
Alberta recognizes six different states of reclamation – and only one of them means the reclamation treatment is approved by the provincial regulator and the land is returned to the Crown and cannot be re-disturbed. Only then does it meet the criteria to be certified fully “reclaimed”. No oil sands tailings ponds have this status.
In practice, reclamation is a long process that involves more than simply planting trees on top of dug up dirt. Industry might argue that any progress along the road to reclamation should count, even though many are just testing technologies or in the early stages of treatment.
Although you may have heard Suncor touting one of their ponds as the first tailings pond to be ‘reclaimed’ (once called “Tar Island” or “Pond 1” and now called “Wapisiw Lookout”), here’s what really happened: it was drained, and the tailings fluids were transported to other ponds. They then filled in the “pond” with coarser materials and have since planted vegetation on top. Not only does this area not have a reclamation certificate, but it also isn’t usable or accessible to the public. The peatland was never restored, and the actual harmful tailings fluids were not treated or reclaimed – just moved somewhere else.
Ultimately, a reclaimed area should be accessible and support natural ecosystem processes in a way that allows First Nations and Métis communities, the traditional keepers and users of the land, to support their livelihoods – a Treaty right. The AER’s reclamation certificate does not include that criteria.
MYTH: There is no need to worry about how many tailings ponds are out there right now because they will all be reclaimed in the end.
FACT: Public scrutiny is warranted because overall tailings volumes and area are still increasing, and there is no guaranteed solution or money to clean them up.
By all objective measures, oil sands tailings are growing. Overall volumes of oil sands tailings fluids and land taken up by tailings ponds have only ever increased. Even recently, total fluid tailings volumes have increased from 1075 million cubic metres (Mm³) in 2014 to 1360 Mm³ in 2020 – a 20 per cent increase! And since 2000, the total area of land disturbed by tailings has increased by 300 per cent. Tailings fluids themselves went from covering 34 square kilometers in 2000, to nearly 120 square kilometers in 2020.
The problem is that the tailings ponds are growing larger and rising in number, but there is no evidence that industry can meaningfully reclaim oil sands tailings at the same pace. Despite over 50 years of technological innovations for oil sands mining development, no single operator has determined a safe and stable reclamation approach to oil sands tailings ponds.
Though industry is perhaps very early in their testing of several pilot projects–none have yet proven they are successful in the long-term in supporting healthy aquatic ecosystems. Testing for solutions and having a proven solution are two very different things.
Given the industry’s poor track record with orphaned oil and gas wells, the tailings are cause for concern. There are estimated to be 10,000 wells in Alberta and Saskatchewan that the public will have to deal with because the owners of the wells went out of business before cleaning them up. Reports estimate the governments will need to dedicate over 1 billion dollars to their cleanup. Tailings ponds are a big liability, and history predicts that we could all be on the hook for their cleanup too.
MYTH: The legacy tailings are going down, which proves that the situation is improving.
FACT: ‘Legacy tailings’ is an arbitrary term for tailings fluid produced before 2015, and total tailings volume is going up.
Industry says significant decreases in the volume of their “legacy” tailings fluids is a justifiable counter-argument to growing concerns over the size and volume of waste created by oil sands mines. Let’s be clear: total tailings volumes are going up, and a decrease in “legacy” volumes does not change that fact. It is industry’s attempt to draw attention away from the real issue at hand.
The term “legacy tailings” simply means “fluid tailings stored before January 1, 2015”. The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) provides no additional criteria for what qualifies as ‘legacy’, suggesting the only difference between new and legacy tailings is the production date. Industry strategically only uses “legacy” to give a false sense of responsible and controlled waste management.
What is so special about 2015? It is the year that Directive 074 was abandoned by the provincial regulator. The Directive was a progressive regulation that set tailings reductions targets, but was quickly suspended when it became clear most operators would not meet them. There is no justifiable reason pre-2015 tailings volumes should be viewed separately from total tailings volumes, unless to commemorate the failure of the Directive itself. And regardless of what’s happening with legacy tailings, the overall volumes of tailings has grown massively.
MYTH: Industry commits significant resources into researching tailings reclamation approaches.
FACT: Industry reportedly commits $50 million annually to reclamation research, which is a negligible amount compared to the resources available to oil sands companies.
Industry claims to be doing their part to address the tailings issue and have stated that oil sands operators dedicate roughly $50 million a year to tailings research. In reality, much more resources will need to be dedicated to determining a safe and community-supported reclamation approach. This should not be too challenging given the five largest oil sands operators made more than $150 billion in revenue in 2021 alone – 3,000 times more than what they put aside for tailings research!
Besides, the amount of money spent on research isn’t the measure of whether things are getting better or not. It’s the actual state and size of the mess that matters, and it’s getting bigger and nastier.