Contention within Canada's House of Commons over regulating the environmental impact of oil sands mining broke out into the open last week with the release of a report critical of the government's weak stance on protecting freshwater resources from severe contamination.
"In the final analysis, the story of the oil sands' relationship to water is very much a tale of denial by interested parties—private-sector and governmental—of the potential negative consequences the industry might be having on (water)," the report, written by Liberal members of the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development, said.
Compilation of the report began as a multi-party effort launched by Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia in 2008. Over the course of two and a half years, the committee took testimony from scientists and industry representatives, then after a closed-door meeting earlier this year, the draft report was suddenly abandoned, prompting accusations of a cover-up.
Scarpaleggia told SolveClimate News that the controversy was "a bit of a red herring." Although the full committee report was indeed scrapped, as a result individual parties were given free rein to write and release their own. The Liberal Party report was based on the public testimony given before the multilateral committee, said Scarpaleggia, and "our hands were freed from compromise." Reports written by other parties may be forthcoming in the following months.
"It's a single party political report from a process that didn't reach any consensus," Travis Davies, spokesperson for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, told SolveClimate News, when asked for the industry viewpoint. CAPP represents oil and gas producers in Canada.
The Liberal report focused on the Athabasca River, which flows from Alberta into the Northwest Territories. It's the longest undammed river in Alberta, and the river basin is home to massive deposits of oil sands.
In 2008, nearly 20% of the total investment in Alberta went to oil sands. That same year saw Alberta exporting 1.4 million barrels of crude oil per day into the United States. Despite controversy over this lower-grade, more polluting form of fossil fuel, Canada remains the largest provider of foreign oil to the U.S.
"Huge knowledge gaps"
The report was unflinching in its indictment of federal irresponsibility:
"The federal government does not fully exercise its responsibility to monitor water quality in the oil sands (and downstream) or...industry impacts on fish-bearing waters. Ottawa appears to have de facto devolved and diluted this constitutional responsibility."
Monitoring of fish habitat has been turned over to RAMP (Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program), an industry-funded, multi-stakeholder group. It includes representatives from oil sands companies, the Alberta and national governments and First Nations representatives, but RAMP rarely publishes results of its work and keeps it data largely secret, according to the testimony of Dr. David Schindler, an ecology professor at the University of Alberta.
"It's one of the most incompetent monitoring programs I've ever seen," he told SolveClimate News.
Schindler also said that there's a general lack of peer-reviewed science on the Athabasca River. The last detailed study took place in the 1990's, before oil sands operations grew to their present size. Industry-led studies claim that water pollution is a natural occurrence, resulting from bitumen seeping in from the riverbanks.
When Schindler initiated his own research to test this hypothesis, his results confirmed traces of natural bitumen in the upper watershed. But he also found increased concentrations of mercury, arsenic, lead and organic toxins as the river flowed downstream past oil sands mines.
"The Alberta government is looking into Schindler's work," said Davies. He also agreed that transparency in research is a must.
"I know that industry research is shared with the Alberta government," Davies added, but he couldn't provide overall statistics or details on the behavior of individual companies.
Schindler is especially concerned about the tailings ponds that store contaminated water from the mining process. One worst-case scenario considers the possibility of the contents spilling out from a tailing pond breach,.
"It would make the BP oil spill look like small potatoes," Schindler said.
The last pond breach in Alberta occurred in 1982, when 50 million liters of contaminants flowed downriver into Lake Athabasca. Even without a breach, contaminants from mine tailings seep into local groundwater. The report encouraged more research into how groundwater and surface waters are connected. "We don't know the dynamics of the groundwater aquifers," said Scarpaleggia. "There are huge knowledge gaps."
All of this research requires money, which is in short supply. The budget at Environment Canada (a government-run research organization) has been cut almost every year for the past 3 decades, according to Schindler.
"There hasn't been any political will to invest in water science and make water a national issue," said Scarpaleggia of the federal government. "Their attitude is 'Alberta and industry have this under control.'"
Looking to the future
Although Alberta's tar sands are a provincial matter, the effects of mining cross geographic boundaries. Mining in Alberta can pollute downstream communities in the Northwest Territories. The two regions have been trying to reach an agreement on shared water management since 1982, to no avail.
"There is little excuse for Ottawa not to take a proactive interest in bringing the parties...to the table to work out bilateral agreements for preventing and managing future cross-jurisdictional conflict around freshwater management," wrote the authors of the report.
The report also says water quantity will be a problem. The industry uses vast amounts of fresh water to process oil sands, but existing limits on water extraction from the Athabasca are voluntary and not legally enforceable.
In the future, decreased glacial runoff from climate change will likely lower the river. The report recommended establishing an Ecological Base Flow, beneath which no one can withdraw water for any human-related activities.
Davies of CAPP was not concerned. The oil sands industry is allowed to take three percent of the Athabasca's annual flow. "Right now, we're using less than one percent...(so) we don't see us reaching the full allocation."
Scarpaleggia said the report wasn't meant to criticize industry or the Alberta government.
"Our criticism is the federal government's lack of leadership on the issue," he said. The goals mentioned in the report—funding more peer-reviewed research, increased involvement with inter-provincial water management, protecting fish habitat—"are all realistic. It's all a matter of political will."
(Photo of Lake Athabasca courtesy of NASA)