Blog Posts | Pembina Institute

Federal government failing to enforce laws in oilsands

Blog - Oct. 20, 2010 - By Simon Dyer

You could be forgiven for missing an important oilsands announcement by federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice a few weeks ago, given it came in the aftermath of the media frenzy surrounding the visit of Hollywood director James Cameron to Alberta's oilsands.

But Prentice's announcement of an investigation into the industry-dominated water-monitoring program in the oilsands was an important one. It comes after years of the federal government downplaying its responsibility to ensure responsible environmental management of the oilsands.

The investigation is a great first step, but what we really need is the federal government to step up and take action to enforce all of its laws in the oilsands. Surprising as it may seem, the provincial government isn't the only one with the power to regulate the oilsands. In fact, the federal government has a constitutional responsibility to not only protect Canada's water, but to protect wildlife, meet its climate commitments and ensure appropriate consultation with aboriginal groups.

These areas of responsibility are outlined in a new report released today by three of Canada's leading environmental organizations — the Pembina Institute, Environmental Defence and Equiterre.

Key recommendations for the federal government include:

  • Reconcile oilsands development with Canada's carbon emissions budget, based on the federal government's stated climate change commitments and science-based objectives.
  • Acknowledge and minimize the negative economic impacts of oilsands development by addressing "petro-currency" impacts on Canadian manufacturing and trade, and reinvest oilsands revenues in clean energy while planning for economic diversification and easing the transition for oilsands workers and communities.
  • Protect water quality by setting and enforcing environmental limits to meet the requirements of the Fisheries Act and other federal environmental legislation, including effectively phasing out tailings ponds within a decade.
  • Protect wildlife by enforcing the Species at Risk Act and working with Alberta and Saskatchewan to create a regional network of protected areas, prioritizing the identification and protection of critical habitat for woodland caribou in the boreal forest.
  • Set binding caps on air pollution in the Canadian Environmental Protection Act to avoid acidification and protect human health, and establish an independent, transparent system to monitor air quality.
  • Live up to the legal and constitutional duty to protect the interests of Aboriginal Peoples by ensuring adequate consultation occurs with First Nations communities before approvals are granted for oilsands development, by monitoring environmental and health impacts of oilsands operations, and by enforcing environmental limits within federal jurisdiction.

Adopting these actions would go a long way in reducing the negative impacts of developing the oilsands.

However, if Ottawa continues to focus on managing public relations while neglecting its responsibility to enforce existing laws and regulations, it will not only leave the federal government exposed to continued legal challenges regarding oilsands development, but also expose the oilsands industry to tougher environmental restrictions in the international marketplace.  Most importantly, continued federal absence will leave Canadians more vulnerable to economic uncertainty resulting from tying the value of our dollar to the price of oil.

It is in the interest of all Canadians to ensure that oilsands are developed responsibly. The federal government needs to step up to plate and ensure that this actually happens.

Simon Dyer

Simon is a policy expert with the Pembina Institute. He is based in Calgary.

Jonathan Arnold — Oct 20, 2010 - 06:28 PM MT

What government and non-governmental bodies are currently responsible for granting new proposals for further development?

Simon Dyer — Oct 25, 2010 - 09:17 AM MT

Hi Jonathan, thanks for the question. The answer is: it depends. New oilsands mines usually trigger a joint Federal and Provincial review panel (JRP), and includes the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB). Other Federal and Provincial departments (Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Alberta Environment, ERCB) then issue their approvals and conditions based on the findings from the JRP hearing. Some mine expansions and in-situ projects, however, only require Provincial approval. Only government agencies and the ERCB (an arms-length quasi-judicial provincial energy regulator) can grant new approvals for more oilsands development.

Hope this helps.

Tom Liacas — Oct 20, 2010 - 10:34 AM MT

This is an interesting development and active government participation would be reassuring, I am sure, for many Canadians. Interesting to see that oilsands development is accepted as an activity that will not disappear overnight.
What do you think of efforts by oilsands operators already underway to reduce impact and restore sites to functioning ecosystems? We have a debate going on the subject on our site and if you would like your comments to be republished there, please use the hashtag: #gtsd.
Here is where we are discussing the issue:

Simon Dyer — Oct 25, 2010 - 09:18 AM MT

Hi Tom, While some oilsands operators are making some progress on project-specific areas of reclamation (Suncor’s TRO tailings reclamation technology), there is still a long way to go before functioning ecosystems are reclaimed. Unfortunately, the rapid pace and scale of oilsands development currently dwarfs any advancements in reclamation. We need regional, science-based limits to help manage any land disturbance caused by oilsands development. The new regional planning efforts underway provide promise for how to manage cumulative effects.

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