Enough. It is time to do what Canada should have done decades ago and come down like a ton of bricks on oilsands companies that pollute our land and water.
Imperial Oil’s latest spill of toxic tailings water at the Kearl mine north of Fort McMurray is an outrageous breach of trust. The company’s failure to inform neighbouring First Nations about the spill speaks volumes about the disregard oilsands companies have shown Indigenous people living downstream. This has all the signs of a coverup, says Allan Adam, chief of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. It’s hard not to think he’s right.
Twice, tailings water polluted with chemicals like naphthenic acids, arsenic and leftover bitumen — which, it goes without saying, should never reach human lips — spilled into the forest and wetland. The polluted mess pooled near the Muskeg and Firebag rivers, which in turn flow into the Athabasca River.
Did the company warn residents of Fort Chipewyan about the spill? No. Imperial has apologized but couldn’t come up with a compelling explanation for why the information was not shared with the people who could stand to be harmed by the chemicals. One could imagine any number of reasons Imperial would be happy to keep that information under the dome.
But harder to explain, and frankly more egregious, is why the Alberta Energy Regulator also failed to sound the alarm. The regulator is a government body that we would hope acts in the public interest. But in Alberta, the energy regulator has always been in thrall to industry.
Adam is angry as a hornet and demanding answers from the company and regulator who failed in their duty to warn his people of the spill, thought to be one of the largest in the province’s history. “They’re both up against the wall right now. They were caught red-handed,” he told The Guardian.
This is righteous anger.
What people are reading
Fallout from oilsands pollution has for years been the suspected cause of high cancer rates among Fort Chipewyan residents. Proving causation in communities where the population numbers are small is tough.
But people suspect tailings pollution is to blame and have long lived in fear. “It’s like a silent killer,” Adam told Canada’s National Observer in 2019. “You don’t know what it is that’s out there, what’s causing you to get sick.”
Imperial and other oilsands mining companies operating in the area have been making much of their concern for the environment of late. Pathways Alliance, which lobbies on the behalf of the oilsands giants, is asking Canadian governments to bankroll efforts to lower carbon emissions during the production process through carbon capture, utilization and storage.
Despite profits more than doubling last year, the companies want the public to pick up more than half the cost of their planned $16.5-billion carbon capture project.
Governments should only give this kind of cash to people they can trust. If one of the major oilsands players can’t handle the pollution it already creates and keeps residents in the dark when spills happen, how can the government trust that company to make good on carbon capture promises?
Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault says he’s concerned about the handling of the spill. But so far, his main beef seems to be with Alberta, which is obliged to promptly alert Ottawa when accidents happen.
Alberta is shuffling the onus onto Imperial, blaming the company for tardy communications. Someone from Imperial should be losing a job over this, but that is not Premier Danielle Smith’s call to make. She instead has demanded “radical transparency” from energy companies but has so far failed to spell out what that means or laid out a path to get there.
Smith could start with heads rolling at the energy regulator, but that’s not likely this close to a provincial election. Smith is as cosy as one can be with the oil and gas industry, so she’ll probably keep her head down for the next couple months and hope this dies down.
Guilbeault, on the other hand, should push hard for better answers and, if laws were broken in this affair, make sure justice is pursued with full government might. He might also talk to his cabinet colleagues about that niggling issue of trust.
Never mind that the oilsands are huge contributors to the climate change that threatens to kill us all. A company that spills and hides for nine months may not be the best investment bedfellow.
Meanwhile, it’s good to know he is talking to chiefs of the neighbouring First Nations. They deserve that respect and then some.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said it best. When the story broke last week, she told Observer reporter Natasha Bulowski the spill coverup is “an outrageous act of environmental racism.” She’s right.
Article: "Proving causation
Article: "Proving causation in communities where the population numbers are small is tough."
Especially if Ottawa and Alberta refuse to conduct an independent, comprehensive health study in the region. Why the delay? If the industry has nothing to hide, it has nothing to fear.
Not the first time the regulator has failed local First Nations:
"How Alberta kept Fort McKay First Nation in the dark about a toxic cloud from the oilsands" (National Observer, 2019)
"As the chemicals inched towards the town, AER staff clashed over whether they should warn the community, say insiders interviewed by the investigation.
"…(At that time) there really was no human health risk-based decision-making at the regulator. It was either you killed someone or you didn't.
"…In the aftermath of the incident, the regulator fired its chief scientist, a toxicologist who, according to internal records, tried to warn the community of the danger. The regulator then sought to replace her with a job posting that called for someone with lower qualifications."
The tailings ponds are
The tailings ponds are actually illegal. Federal and provincial laws PROHIBIT industry from depositing substances that are harmful to migratory birds.
Under the Migratory Birds Convention Act, oilsands companies break the law every day:
"No person or vessel shall deposit a substance that is harmful to migratory birds, or permit such a substance to be deposited, in waters or an area frequented by migratory birds or in a place from which the substance may enter such waters or such an area."
Under the Fisheries Act, companies may not deposit substances deleterious to fish either directly or indirectly.
AB regulations say that anyone who "keeps, stores or transports" a hazardous substance must do so in a way that ensures it doesn't come into contact with plants or animals.
Headline: "Heads should roll
Headline: "Heads should roll over massive Alberta spill by Imperial Oil"
There are actually two large spills in the last year from Imperial's Kearl tailings pond(s). And these are just the two we know about.
All oilsands tailings ponds leak. Interception systems do not capture all leakage. The protection is not 100%.
"[Imperial Oil] said the seepage from the spring, discovered last May, escaped its interception system for the tailings area because it occurred in shallower ground layers not protected by the system."
"Imperial Oil's tailings spill in Alberta shows new wastewater rules needed: Jonathan Wilkinson" (Postmedia)
"Tailings ponds are essentially designed to leak. They’re not lined, but are surrounded by collection ditches that divert leaked water into 'seepage ponds.' Those seepage ponds may or may not be lined. Water that makes its way into the seepage ponds is then pumped back into the tailings pond. There are also 'interceptor wells,' which are wells designed to catch any fluid that seeps past the ditches.
"Syncrude’s own reporting noted tailings fluid 'has been identified beyond the perimeter ditch in three areas.'
" … information from Syncrude and Suncor showed 'consistent evidence of seepage of [tailings fluids] from tailings ponds into groundwater at certain monitoring wells that are close in proximity to surface water, including tributaries to the Athabasca River.'
"Specifically, the report notes that Syncrude’s own calculations show approximately 785 million litres of tailings fluid had 'migrated' past the collection ditches in 2017. That’s equivalent to enough drinking water for a million people for a full year.
"Will Gibson, spokesperson for Syncrude, [said] that the company has hundreds of groundwater monitoring wells and is 'committed to improving our environmental performance.'
"'Based on a comprehensive monitoring program, we’re confident that we’re not having an adverse impact,' he said.
"Suncor pointed to a prepared statement, which noted 'as a whole, the industry spends approximately $50 million each year on monitoring in the region, with an additional $130 million per year on site-specific monitoring. To date, these programs have not indicated an adverse impact to the Athabasca River from the oilsands industry.'"
"It’s official: Alberta’s oilsands tailings ponds are leaking. Now what?" (The Narwhal)
Article: "Governments should
Article: "Governments should only give this kind of cash to people they can trust. If one of the major oilsands players can’t handle the pollution it already creates and keeps residents in the dark when spills happen, how can the government trust that company to make good on carbon capture promises?"
Flawed premise. Carbon capture has limited application in the oilsands. As the Pembina Institute notes, in the oilsands sector "most CO2 is emitted in low concentration streams, and the efforts to capture it will be challenging and expensive."
Where CO2 sources are small or diffuse, e.g., in the oilsands apart from upgraders, CCS is not economical or practical.
The Pembina Institute estimates that "full deployment of CCUS in all high-concentration streams could result in a decrease of c 7 Mt CO2e annually, which equates to 8% of total oilsands emissions."
Tens of billions of public dollars out the window to capture a small fraction of total upstream emissions. Reducing upstream emissions does nothing to cut the 80–90% of emissions generated from a barrel of oil downstream at the consumer end.
CCS merely perpetuates the oil industry. Fossil fuels for longer means more emissions, not less.
The hugely profitable O&G
The hugely profitable O&G industry neither needs nor deserves more subsidies.
Even if CCS were viable in the oilsands, and even if O&G companies were trustworthy, that still would not justify handing over tens of billions of tax dollars.
Clean-up, reclamation, and emissions reduction are all standard costs of doing business. Since when are taxpayers on the hook for industry's business expenses? What ever happened to free enterprise? Polluter pay?
Taxpayers do not pay for scrubbers on coal plants. That's a business expense, passed on to consumers, not taxpayers.
[Do oilsands companies expect to make a return on oilsands clean-up and reclamation, too? Will taxpayers be on the hook for that?]
Why don't we pay for Cenovus Energy's pencils and paper too? Poor CEO Alex Pourbaix probably needs a new jet as well.
Did it never occur to oilsands companies that they should set funds aside from windfall profits and use them to cover business expenses? Save for a rainy day?
Why should taxpayers give these companies a nickel?
Staggering sense of entitlement in the O&G industry.
Privatize the profits, socialize the costs. The fossil fuel industry's business model.
Thanks for your detailed and
Thanks for your detailed and informed commentary, Geoffrey. You probably have an extensive data base that is hopefully backed up.
"What ever happened to free enterprise? Polluter pay?"
There never was such a thing as "free" enterprise, that is, free of government influence except when government is influenced by industry. Even the most rabid anti-government convoy trucker needs the vast public highway and road system to make a living. Ditto those gazillionaire CEOs landing their private jets on publicly-owned airport runways. They both enjoy the public services of a democracy. Neither of these individuals balk at government subsidies while whining about government mandates on healthcare and control over environmental rules ... unless they have purchased their preferred politicians beforehand.
"Did it never occur to oilsands companies that they should set funds aside from windfall profits and use them to cover business expenses? Save for a rainy day?
Why should taxpayers give these companies a nickel?"
I'd say yes, they did realize long ago they could ignore sound financial planning in favour of socializing their losses. Their motives were designed in advance, probably in some air conditioned black tower in downtown Houston.
It's bizarre that the word
It's bizarre that the word "Notley" does not appear in the article. Has she suffered some major injury? Long vacation in Madagascar with the phone off?
She's probably too busy
She's probably too busy searching for retirement property. She knows she can't win by criticizing the industry she supported so vehemently before. Nor can she win by campaigning on fossil fuel's enormous environmental pollution, even as it affects downstream communities so disastrously. That is how deeply the Alberta government has been stuffed into the pocket of Big Oil.
If Notley is looking at retirement property in Alberta's favourite playground, BC's Okanagan Valley, she may need to walk around in disguise. Many people there remember when she attempted to ban BC wines over the BC government's lawsuit over TMX.
On the other hand, some may welcome her as good for business -- sales of BC wines skyrocketed with the ban. The manager of Vancouver's largest government liquor store laughed when I pointed out the huge stack of various BC wines on prominent display back then and said that sales were never better. I bought several bottles of Hester Creek pinot gris myself. Many Albertans drove to the Okanagan after the ban and loaded up their vans and trunks and smuggled the booze back to Alberta to sell at jacked up under-the-counter prices, and to fill private collector's orders. Demand went up dramatically.
I suppose this does illustrate how prohibition tends to fail.
Geoffrey Pounder, et. al have
Geoffrey Pounder, et. al have always made crystal clear why the oil & gas sector is a universal blot on humanity and an irretrievable insult to life on earth.
When you think about it, Earth's insensate geologic processes did their best to bury the toxic products of the earth's earliest vegetal bloom. It is almost as if the planet understood the mistake it had made and tried to bury the evidence. (Take heed those who would bury nuclear waste?)
But then the planet made another crucial mistake - it and the evolutionary process contrived to create a species so maladapted to co-habitation with all other life on Earth that it became the greatest destructive force - greater even than the mighty forces of volcanism and continental drift. Evolution is to blame for humans; and evolution must speed up exponentially, if humanity is to survive its self induced apocalypse.
I do agree that humanity
I do agree that humanity needs to grow up. Especially the insecure male, which is one if the most destructive entities encountered in the in evolution process. It's obvious evolution is an incomplete project. Playground bully to big, smoke-belching truck driver to empire building little men with armies n' big guns. It's all a disastrous cartoon.
Perhaps women should rule the planet for a couple hundred years to calm it down. There are the Maggie Thatchers and the Marjorie Taylor Greens, but overall, women will likely be better at consensus building in peace than your typical room full of tatted male narcissists.
As for burying radioactive waste, the Earth's core is one big nuclear reaction, resulting in its being molten iron. The heat starts relatively shallowly in the crust, and is the best unrealized sources of infinite geothermal power that could be the antidote for over confidence in some quarters about nuclear power. If the waste from existing reactors is not dealt with through becoming a fuel for next generation reactors, then it must be buried deeply someday.
Yes, and it is not only the
Yes, and it is not only the outrageous disregard for the people living downstream who depend on food from the land and rivers, but for the rivers themselves - the Athabasca, the Slave and the Mackenzie Rivers - as well as the Arctic Ocean, and all the riparian, terrestrial and marine ecosystems that depend on them. This is a crime and should be treated as such.