What they belch into the atmosphere by way of greenhouse gases is certainly a flashpoint for Alberta oil sands operations.

Just as critical is what they allegedly leak into water sources and how much access they have to fresh water supplies.

It is estimated the industry uses 12 barrels of water to extract one barrel of bitumen, of which about 70 percent is recycled at the plants, but about one-third ends up in the toxic tailings ponds at some of the largest sites.

Just as important in a drought-prone province is whether the largest oil sands mining operations, run by Syncrude Canada, Suncor Energy, Shell Canada and Canadian Natural Resources, should be forced to reduce their licensed take from the Athabasca River, the major waterway in northeastern Alberta.

Both the Canadian and Alberta governments are coming under pressure to ensure there is no contamination of water supplies by oil sands operators and to lower the operators’ water consumption.

In an unprecedented challenge, Environmental Defense Canada, or EDC, and the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council, along with three citizens who live downstream from the oil sands, have filed a case under the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, accusing the Canadian government of not enforcing provisions of the federal Fisheries Act prohibiting activity that allows harmful substances to enter bodies of water.

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Looking to embarrass Canadian government

The NAFTA submission accuses Syncrude, Suncor and Shell of allowing toxic materials to leak from their tailings ponds into ground and surface water.

The filing notes that the ponds cover about 130 square kilometers and contain 720 billion liters of oily waste from bitumen extraction and processing.

EDC policy director Matt Price told reporters that evidence of leaks is contained in industry reports and submissions for environmental assessments. He said the NAFTA case is designed to embarrass the Canadian government to enforce its laws before U.S. and Mexican officials start to examine the evidence.

If two of three representatives from Canada, the United States and Mexico who sit on NAFTA’s Commission for Environmental Cooperation accept the complaint an investigation would be launched, which could result in financial penalties if the allegations prove to be true.

Price said the environmentalists hope to embarrass the Canadian government to enforce its laws before U.S. and Mexican officials have a chance to start publicly probing the claims.

However, because the investigation could last up to three years, he said the EDC was ready to withdraw
its complaint if the government agreed to step up monitoring efforts.

Prentice says no evidence of pollution

Canada’s Environment Minister Jim Prentice told reporters that his department has found no evidence that tailings pollution had leaked into the Athabasca River.

“I’ve indicated to the department that this is a serious issue of real concern and I expect the department to step up its monitoring efforts to ensure that continues to be the case,” he said.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers rejected the complaint as being “without merit because oil sands development proceeds with federal and provincial government approvals that include conditions (including) extensive groundwater protection and monitoring because tailings ponds are engineered to seep. Water quality is monitored and reported to ensure there is no harm to fish and aquatic life.”

Renner orders review, companies agree to use less water

In a separate matter, Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner has ordered a review of flow needs from the Athabasca River before renegotiating water licenses for Syncrude and Suncor.

He said that although the two companies have agreed to halve their licensed take from the river at unspecified times of low flow, the government could take measures to mandate at what point those reductions would occur.

Renner said Alberta is determined to “protect not only the users of the river, but the ecosystem as well as the human population.”

The review has followed a three-year study costing C$4.6 million, involving industry, environmental, aboriginal and government representatives.

Syncrude and Suncor have said their operations can’t continue to function without river water, but they have agreed to reduce their take from the Athabasca River to 2 cubic meters per second in low-flow periods (normally the middle of winter), while Shell and Canadian Natural Resources are prepared to reduce their draw to 0.2 cubic meters per second.

Syncrude and Suncor are emphatic that their operations can’t function without water, but Renner said the companies have not yet agreed at what point they would voluntarily stop taking water, leaving the provincial government to develop its own proposal.

Think-tank criticizes Alberta’s water management policies

A report issued this month by the Ottawa-based C.D. Howe Institute, an independent think-tank, said a failure by the Alberta government to adopt better water management policies poses a threat to the environment and the economy.

It said a growing population and rising demand from new water users have already forced Alberta to stop issuing new water licenses for three of the province’s largest sub-river basins.

Study author Henning Bjornlund, a specialist in water and the economy at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, said there is an urgent need for Alberta to identify waters that need to be protected to secure environmental and other public benefits.

Links of interest

C.D. Howe Institute

Contact Gary Park via [email protected].