Alberta Tar Sands: A Legacy of Negligence and Deceit

4 Aug

by Adam Kingsmith / DeSmogBlog

It’s no secret that the province of Alberta, the government Canada, and the titans of the fossil fuel industry pride themselves on robust regulatory and oversight structures when it comes to the extraction of natural resources.

“Environmental protection is a priority for our government and Canada is a global environmental leader,” said Canada’s Natural Resources Minister, Joe Oliver. “This is why Canada’s oil sands are subject to some of the most stringent environmental regulations and monitoring in the world.”
“The regulations that are in place are very stringent, the most stringent in North America and certainly around the world,” added Alberta’s Minister of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, Diana McQueen. “We have a lot of development in this province, but we also have very tough regulations with regards to any spills that happen.”
“The system is working,” continued Alberta Energy Regulator CEO Jim Ellis. “We have the resources we need now to properly regulate it. And that includes compliance, on the ground inspections, regulations… They are capably handling the workload right now.”

Yet that’s not the story that the numbers tell.

A comprehensive new study released by the research group Global Forest Watch Canada—Environmental Incidents in Northeastern Alberta’s Bitumen Sands Region, 1996-2012—found 9,262 environmental incidents and 4,063 perceived violations of legislation documented in the tar sands region of northeastern Alberta between the period of 1996 to mid-2012.

The 677-page peer-reviewed study was conceptualised back in 2008, when biologist and environmental consultant Dr. Kevin Timoney—lead author on the study—came across shelves of records in Alberta Environment’s data library in Edmonton that appeared to contain details of breaches of environmental regulations and conditions that hadn’t been publicly released.

When government staff told Timoney certain records were off-limits, he and Peter Lee ofGlobal Forest Watch Canada decided to dig deeper. Yet given the difficulties the two experienced trying to obtain information in the first place, the study ended up being both an examination of environmental incidents and the process of freedom of information.

“It was extremely frustrating. I just reached a point where I was so frustrated I said, ‘I’m going to do whatever it takes to extract this information’ because I just felt wronged by the whole process,” said Timoney. “It just seems like it’s a process that’s designed not to release information but rather to appear to release information.”

After a tedious series of Freedom of Information filings, Timoney and Lee were eventually granted access to the lot—1,700 printed pages and 3,500 more PDF files detailing everything from spills into the Athabasca River and excessive smokestack emissions to the discovery of random waste dumps in the bush.

Overall, the data shows the disconcerting reality that environmental violations in Alberta’s tar sands region are frequent, enforcement is rare, record keeping is dysfunctional, and there is a chronic failure to disclose important environmental information to the public.

“When you’ve looked at thousands of these records, what we’re seeing is the tip of the iceberg,” added Timoney. “It was evident that there were thousands of incidents the public didn’t know anything about.” 

The results of so-called “regulations” in action. Image Credit: howlmontreal/Flickr

A recurrent feature of these incidents is that the volume, duration and chemical composition of the releases to air, spills, leaks, and discharges to land or water are unspecified or unknown. This lack of basic data limits the ability to understand industrial impacts and represents a significant deficiency in government and industrial monitoring.

What’s more, the incidents documented in this study represent only a fraction of the actual number of total incidents due to the combined effects of missing records, redacted records, multiple contraventions subsumed under a single incident, and under-reporting—not to mention the fact that other kinds of incidents, such as pipeline spills, are typically not reported to the EMS database.

According to the enforcement records, during the study’s time period—where those 4,063 perceived violations of environmental legislation took place—the government took only 37 actions to enforce regulations. This means that from 1996 to 2012, only 0.9 per cent of all environmental legislation violations in the tar sands region were subject to any kind of enforcement—on average, nothing more than a relatively inconsequential $4,500 fine.

By comparison, the United States has an average enforcement rate for Clean Water Act violations of 8.2 per cent—nine times higher than that of Alberta.

“Not every incident is going to result in a compliance action,” responded Alberta Environment spokesperson Jessica Potter when asked about such a low rate of enforcement. “The determination as to whether or not we move forward with an enforcement action entirely depends on what we find in that investigation.”

However, the study found that in reality enforcement was largely dependent on public outcry. For example, if the media was tipped off and the public learned about the incident, it tended to be taken more seriously. Conversely, unless the public was aware of an incident, or was made aware through the media, there was little chance of enforcement.

In short, as both Timoney and the study are at pains to point out, the governments of Alberta and Canada are “absolutely not” doing enough to enforce regulations. “There is this disconnect between the statement from the government that we have these great regulations and we’re strictly enforcing them, and the reality, which is that there are thousands of violations about which they do nothing.”

For these reasons, Timoney and Global Forest Watch Canada recommend that all environmental incidents should be posted online in real-time for the public to scrutinise and download, as well as the installation of 24-hour live-feed cameras at tar sand sites.

“I feel very strongly that the public has a right to know what’s happening,” concluded Timoney. “In this situation, what we’re trying to do is say, ‘Decide for yourself. Here’s the information that we gathered. If you wish to decide that environmental management in the bitumen sands region is good or bad, here’s a set of information that you can look at to decide for yourself.'”

Image Credit: Kris Krug/Flickr

%d bloggers like this: