Kearl oilsands leak exposes gaps in how Alberta and Canada oversee industry: experts
The recent release of toxic tailings from an oil sands mine in northern Alberta has revealed serious flaws in Canada and Alberta’s environmental protection practices, observers say.
Some accuse the federal government of abandoning the states. Others point to what they call captive state regulators. All agree that a leak from Imperial Oil’s Carr Tailings Pond could not have gone unreported for nine months in both Ottawa and Edmonton, and those living nearby.
“We have never taken this issue seriously,” said Martin Olzinski, a resource law professor at the University of Calgary and a former federal regulatory attorney. “They have never taken these risks and threats seriously.”
Imperial discovered “brown sludge” in one of its Karl tailings ponds in May, revealing a serious problem over the summer.
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However, Alberta’s energy regulator will not renew First Nations, federal and We did not notify the state environment minister of the matter. Federal law requires that Environment Canada be notified of any such leak within 24 hours.
Mandy Olsgaard, a toxicologist who has worked with Alberta’s energy regulator and Aboriginal groups on regulatory issues, said:
Olsgard said Ottawa will participate in a review panel to evaluate the project, after which most will withdraw.
“They just hand it over to the states.”
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And the state hands it over to regulators many consider too close to the industry they’re supposed to oversee.
“This regulator has always considered the bilateral relationship between itself and industry,” said Nigel Banks, a former professor of resource law at the University of Calgary. “Never a triangle, not a three-legged stool that engulfs the masses.
“For me, this[Carl’s release]just confirmed all that.”
That attitude permeates state governments, Banks said.
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“This is the general message, don’t rock the boat,” he said. “It permeates the energy sector and permeates the Alberta environment.”
Environment and Climate Change Canada spokesperson Gabriel Lamontagne said in an email that the information Imperial reported to Alberta EDGE was still under investigation.
EDGE, which stands for Environmental and Dangerous Goods Emergencies, manages hazardous goods transportation emergency calls in Alberta and assesses the severity of hazardous goods incidents. The company’s website states that it “openly communicates with other regulatory agencies, such as the Alberta Energy Regulatory Authority (AER), in the event of an emergency or safety-related incident.”
A survey conducted for the Alberta Environment in 2021 found that more than 85% of Albertans have little confidence in their regulators’ ability to manage an industry (in this case, coal). The survey also reported that Albertans found government agencies reluctant to release information and not very transparent.
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Federal Environment Minister Stephen Guilbeau and his Alberta counterpart Sonya Savage acknowledge that things need to change.
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“Take a step back and say, ‘What are the processes? Have they been tracked? And do they need to be strengthened?’ We are committed to taking steps to strengthen all these processes.” doing.”
“We have to find a better mechanism,” Guilbeault said.
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But Merlin Schmidt, an environmental commentator for the Alberta New Democratic Party, is skeptical.
He said states and regulators have already refused to tell him the scope and timeline of the leak investigation. Nor does it commit to publicly release the results of its internal investigations into whether the regulator complies with its notification rules.
“There is no investigation of which processes led to failure and no commitment to improvement,” he said. “We just shrugged and hope it works out next time.”
Karl’s situation shows that it could be a mistake for the federal government to “harmonize” regulation with states and delegate oversight to states, Olzynski said.
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“Given the political situation in the state, it was expected,” he said. “I should have known these people weren’t talking well together, so I’d encourage you to reconsider these arrangements that depend on them talking together.”
Olszynski said oil sands operators should report spills and other unscheduled releases directly to the federal government.
“I think it’s time for Environment Canada to play a more active role in tailings management,” he said.
Karl’s situation made one thing clear, Orsgard said.
“It has become generally clear that there is no process in place between the state and federal governments.”
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