Canadian Consulting Engineer

Alberta library users paying more in late fees than oilsands pay for environmental penalties

Consulting engineering companies are often asked to help their clients obtain environmental approvals for their pro...

July 21, 2008   Canadian Consulting Engineer

Consulting engineering companies are often asked to help their clients obtain environmental approvals for their projects. But do the clients always follow through and implement the plans and promises after the project becomes reality?
In the Alberta oil sands sector it seems not. On June 26 Dan McFayden, chairman of the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB), announced a new directive. In the announcement McFayden suggested the oil sands producers are failing to implement their own plans: “Many of the oil sands projects are not meeting the targets for the management of fluid fine tailings set out in their applications to the Board,” he said.
The new ERCB directive is entitled “Tailings Performance Criteria and Requirements for Oil Sands Mining Schemes.” It spells out that oil sands operators not only have to prepare plans for operating and abandoning every consolidated tailings pond, but also they must in fact operate and abandon each pond in accordance with the plans they submit and that are approved by ERCB. The oilsands operators also have to file specific dates for the construction, use and closure of ponds with the board by December 31, 2009.
The bad press for the oilsands industry was exacerbated in July, when a Toronto-based environmental group known as ForestEthics said that companies operating in the tar sands were getting a “free ride” in terms of environmental enforcement.
The oilsands companies were fined only $249,000 in 2006, said ForestEthics “despite numerous environmental violations including 240 air quality exceedences by just one company Suncor.” The ForestEthics figures were based on a Pembina Institute report.
In comparison, noted Forest Ethics, the citizens of Calgary and Edmonton had paid $4 million in fines for overdue library books — or 16 times as much as the oilsands companies’ fines.
Rather than giving fines, the government will first issue warnings or enforcement orders for environmental compliance. These could cost companies millions of dollars to carry through. However, Forest Ethics said that the records for 2007 showed only two environmental protection orders had been issued against Syncrude and Suncor, and only one environmental enforcement order against Suncor.
Between 1988 and 2005 the federal government has not laid a single charge under the Fisheries Act against an oil sands company. “Government and industry are saying the tar sands are controlled by strict environmental standards, but the government’s own records show that’s clearly not the case,” said Gillian McEachern, a senior campaigner with Forest Ethics.
Bad press first hit the oil sands on April 28, after 500 migrating ducks perished in the Aurora Settling Basin, a Syncrude tailings pond north of Fort McMurray.
It’s been estimated by the Pembina Institute that all the current and proposed tailings ponds will cover an area of 220 square kilometres in Alberta.


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