While Ottawa claims environmental leadership, legal group calls for investigation into oilsands pollution

Blog - March 7, 2013 - By Jennifer Grant

On the same day that Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver assured the Chicago Council on Global Affairs that “Canada is a global environmental leader … and yes, that includes the oilsands,” the reputable and independent legal group Ecojustice released a report calling for a full federal investigation to determine if oilsands operators are in violation of the Fisheries Act.

It was a timely and important reality check, with Canadian politicians making their way steadily to the U.S. to extoll Canada’s energy resources in the final months before the decision on the Keystone XL pipeline. With the stakes raised, the government's rhetoric has gone into overdrive: Mr. Oliver is now claiming the oilsands are “greener” than other sources and dismissing concerns about the environmental impacts of oilsands development as the product of “false information.”

Federal Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver speaks at a news conference in Vancouver in September 2012. Photo: Courtesy JoeOliver.caFor the record, the oilsands industry faces considerable hurdles on the path to becoming environmentally responsible — we’ve examined a variety of those challenges in detail, and we’ve mapped out a number of solutions too. And with approval of the Keystone XL pipeline hanging in the balance, now is the time for some frank and honest discussions about what more Canada could be doing to address global warming.

Canada lacks credibility when it comes to its claims about leading on climate — especially since Ottawa has yet to produce climate regulations for the oil and gas sector. But the leadership void doesn’t just apply to climate policy. Alberta and Canada have been slow to roll out a monitoring program after 45 years of oilsands development for northeastern Alberta, leaving Canadiansto rely on Ecojustice and independent scientists to document how oilsands operations are impacting our air, land and water. It’s simply not defensible to claim, as Minister Oliver does, that “Canada is the environmentally responsible choice for the U.S. to meet its energy needs in oil for years to come.”

In its new report, Ecojustice utilized publicly available information from Environment Canada’s National Pollutant Release Inventory to conduct deposition modelling that illustrates how particulate matter emitted by two separate oilsands facilities pollutes the Athabasca River. (Particulate matter is of concern because it contains toxic polycyclic aromatic compounds, some of which have been found to cause cancer in humans and impact the development and survival of fish.) The two facilities chosen, the Suncor Energy Oil Sands Limited Partnership and the Syncrude Canada Limited Mildred Lake Plant Site, are the oldest companies to mine and upgrade bitumen and some of the biggest emitters of particulate matter in the province.

Oilsands refineries in winter. Photo: Pembina Institute.

The report indicates that in just one year, more than 1,000 tonnes of particulate matter is deposited — some of which ends up in the Athabasca River and the snowpack and tributaries that feed the river. This is a conservative estimate, as data from only two of 36 stacks from Suncor and Syncrude’s facilities were analyzed.

Ecojustice’s findings corroborate those of several other recent studies which also found that concentrations of polycyclic aromatic compounds tend to be higher downstream of, and closer to, industrial oilsands activities. This growing body of scientific research makes it increasingly indefensible to suggest that pollutants detected in the Athabasca River must be due to naturally-occurring bitumen in the geological formations through which the river runs.

Even though the oilsands are Canada’s largest industrial project, there is a lack of leadership and clarity when it comes to understanding industry’s impact on the environment. This puts the onus on the scientific community and groups like Ecojustice to go to great lengths to dig up and analyze data that should already be easily available to the public.

This study raises some serious issues about the federal government’s responsibility — and its commitment to environmental protection. Given the likely cumulative amount of pollution resulting from the particulate emissions of all stacks from all facilities over time, Ecojustice argues that the federal government has a legal responsibility to carry out a full investigation under the Fisheries Act to determine how this pollution is impacting fish-bearing waters and whether the impacts from oilsands development are significant enough to be in violation of federal legislation. By heeding this recommendation, Canada would put a bit more weight behind its words. 

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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