New oilsands mine to go ahead despite lack of promised Athabasca River protection

Blog - March 25, 2013 - By Jennifer Grant

After years of delays, the next major oilsands mining venture is expected to start production by the end of this month. Imperial’s Kearl mine was approved in 2007 but legal challenges over the failure to manage greenhouse gas pollution, along with protests associated with equipment imports, unseasonably cold weather and significant cost increases delayed startup.

Despite these delays, promised environmental measures that were critical in granting the approval remain unimplemented. While Imperial says it has been proactive in building water storage facilities for the project, the fact remains that the policies required to ensure protection of the Athabasca River have not yet been secured.

As the Alberta government’s water conversations wrap up, it’s especially appropriate to draw attention to the ongoing lack of protection of the Athabasca River that is inconsistent with the approval granted for Imperial’s Kearl mine. The independent Joint Review Panel for the Imperial Kearl Project underscored the importance of this issue when it concluded that, as long as an enforced Ecosystem Base Flow (a time when the river flows are so low that water withdrawals by oilsands companies should be halted) was implemented for the Athabasca River, the Kearl project would not likely result in significant adverse environmental effects.  

The Athabasca River. The problem is, this hasn’t happened and the Athabasca River remains unprotected.

Without this minimum river flow threshold, oilsands operators are allowed to withdraw water from the Athabasca River throughout the year, even when flows get dangerously low in winter months. Not properly recognizing seasonal variations in the Athabasca River’s flow when managing oilsands development imperils the aquatic ecosystem of one of Alberta’s most ecologically and culturally important rivers.

Why protect the Athabasca River during low-flow periods?

Oilsands mining operations in northeastern Alberta require substantial amounts of water, particularly from the Athabasca River. The Athabasca River’s flow varies throughout the year with high-flow periods during the summer months and low-flow periods during the winter months. During low-flow periods, the Athabasca River is susceptible to low oxygen levels that are known to be detrimental to the eggs and fry of fall-spawning species such as lake whitefish and bull trout. Although the amount of water used to produce each barrel of oil from the oilsands has decreased over the years, the steady increase in production and cumulative water withdrawals from the Athabasca River — especially during low-flow periods — represent a risk to the aquatic ecosystem.

The recommendation that the Kearl project was in the public interest was contingent on rules being introduced that would halt river withdrawals during low flow periods. As the decision report states:

The Joint Panel finds that the KOS Project is in the public interest for the reasons set out in this report. The Joint Panel concludes that the project is not likely to result in significant adverse environmental effects, provided that the recommendations and mitigation measures proposed by the Joint Panel are implemented. (emphasis added)


Those specific recommendations included that, “Phase II of the Water Management Framework be implemented by January 1, 2011, in keeping with the stated commitments of the Governments of Alberta and Canada,” and that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and Alberta Environment “incorporate an ecological base flow into the final Water Management Framework for the Athabasca River.”

A water management framework for the Athabasca River

In other words, rather than rejecting the project based on unacceptable impacts to the Athabasca River, the Panel acknowledged that the current lack of rules will result in environmental impacts, but concluded that if rules were strengthened, the Athabasca River would be protected.

An oilsands facility bordering the Athabasca River. In the circular reasoning that has become common in oilsands decision-making, the Panel based its recommendation that the project be approved on the assumption that the rules would be strengthened, rather than on the likely impacts of the project under existing regulations.

One would think the delays that Imperial experienced would have given the governments of Alberta and Canada extra time to implement the necessary changes to ensure the protection of the Athabasca River ecosystem, especially since the Panel identified such policies as the key to limiting the impact of the project. While it's promising to see companies take voluntary actions to mitigate the impacts of their projects, such steps do not replace government management of the oilsands resource. 

The ongoing failure of governments to meaningfully address impacts and deliver on past commitments — whether it be water withdrawals from the Athabasca River, growing tailings volumes, or the protection of caribou — undermines the entire industry’s recent efforts to secure the social license (or public approval) to operate.

While Alberta and Canada talk a lot about responsible energy development, we still are failing to see the changes required to back it up. Six long years have passed since the Joint Panel recommended that a zero-withdrawal low-flow limit must be implemented to protect the Athabasca River. Proceeding with new oilsands projects in the absence of this limit is simply unacceptable, and threatens the credibility of Alberta and Canada’s oilsands regulatory process. If Alberta and Canada want to be able to argue oilsands development is “responsible,” then regulators have some serious catching up to do.

Jennifer Grant
Jennifer Grant

Jennifer Grant was the Pembina Institute's associate regional director for Alberta and the North until 2013, and former director of the Institute's oilsands program.


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