With oilsands drilling projects, Ottawa outsources environmental responsibility

Blog - June 4, 2013 - By Nathan Lemphers

In situ oilsands development contributes substantially to land disturbance. Photo: David Dodge.

From the Stanley Cup playoffs to Blue Jays games, movie theatres, bus shelters and newspapers — it’s hard to miss the federal government’s “responsible resource development” advertising. Not to be confused with similar ads the oilsands industry is running, this campaign has the federal government on the streets and in our homes selling the benefits of oilsands development to Canadians.

But there’s something you won’t learn from the “responsible development” ads.

Draft regulations tabled in April would officially keep in situ oilsands development — which requires drilling deep underground to extract bitumen — off the list of projects that require federal environmental assessment.

Since 80 per cent of Canada’s oilsands reserves that are considered “recoverable” are only accessible using in situ or drilling technologies, it’s evident this technology is going to play a major role in future oilsands expansion.

Yet with the new environmental assessment regulation, Ottawa is officially writing itself out of process that would enable it to responsibly reduce the impacts of oilsands expansion before they occur, and outsourcing that responsibility to provinces like Alberta, whose existing environmental regulations and enforcement are failing to keep pace with current rates of expansion.  

Why give in situ a free pass?

Until recently, in situ projects have been the little brother living in the shadow of the massive oilsands mines, which nearly always require federal and provincial environmental assessments because of their significant impacts on land, waterways, wildlife and aboriginal peoples. In comparison, in situ projects have not historically required federal assessments because they did not typically impact navigable waterways or withdraw surface water as oilsands mines do.

In 2012 the volume of bitumen produced from in situ projects overtook oilsands mining for the first time. That trend will continue for at least the next few decades as in situ developments comprise the majority of the oilsands sector’s approved projects, which together have a production capacity of 5.2 million barrels a day.

By officially excluding in situ operations from federal environmental assessments, the Harper government’s proposed regulatory changes would allow Ottawa to abdicate its responsibility to manage and mitigate the impacts of a large proportion of future oilsands growth.

In situ oilsands development has significant impacts

The intensive use of steam and natural gas for in situ oilsands extraction means a lot of energy is consumed. In situ production results in 2.5 times more greenhouse gas emissions per barrel of bitumen than oilsands mining.

Federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver often states that carbon pollution from the oilsands has decreased (on a per-barrel basis) by 26 percent since 1990. Unfortunately, this claim ignores the trend that actually matters — absolute carbon pollution from oilsands production has more than tripled over the same time period, while per-barrel emissions reductions have been stalled for a decade. (This is partly because oilsands companies were not directed by regulators to improve emissions performance, and partly because of the carbon-intensive nature of in situ development.)

In fact, Environment Canada’s analysis shows that without much stronger policies in place, rapid expansion of the oilsands will make it extremely challenging for Canada to meet its international climate commitments and do our part in the fight against climate change.

In situ also contributes substantially to land disturbance, even though it may appear less destructive than mining. Oilsands drilling technologies have the potential to disturb an area 30 times larger than mining with a network of seismic lines, pipelines, well pads, and cleared areas for steam-generation facilities.

Caribou, the iconic animal on the back of Canada’s quarter-dollar coin, is on track to be extinct in the in situ oilsands region within 30 to 40 years unless practices begin to improve. Scientists link this precipitous decline to too-high levels of industrial activity, since caribou need large swaths of undisturbed boreal forest to thrive.

Ottawa outsourcing environmental responsibility

As in situ projects proliferate in northeastern Alberta there will be need for greater federal oversight, not less. Yet by formally eliminating federal environmental assessments for in situ projects, Ottawa has ceded its ability to fulfill its responsibilities on important topics such as climate change and species at risk, right at the point where decisions are made about whether and under what conditions to approve projects.  

Outsourcing environmental protection to cash-strapped and overburdened provincial governments is irresponsible, especially given Alberta’s poor record on managing the environmental impacts of oilsands development. Not surprisingly, Alberta’s meagre carbon levy on oil producers — amounting to less than 10 cents per barrel — has done nothing to slow the growth of oilsands emissions. Meanwhile, the province has yet to deliver regulations to protect Alberta’s caribou habitat.

Despite the federal government’s feel-good ad campaign, resource development that does not protect the environment can’t be considered responsible — rather, it will only add to the challenges oilsands producers face in securing market access and the social license to operate.

Far from streamlining regulations, the government’s decision to exclude in situ projects from federal environmental assessments is another step toward increasingly irresponsible oilsands development.

Nathan Lemphers
Nathan Lemphers

Nathan Lemphers was a senior policy analyst in the Pembina Institute's oilsands program, until 2013.


Our perspectives to your inbox.

The Pembina Institute endeavors to maintain your privacy and protect the confidentiality of any personal information that you may give us. We do not sell, share, rent or otherwise disseminate personal information. Read our full privacy policy.