In July, the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) announced changes to one of the most visible issues facing the oil sands: tailings pond reclamation. Tailings, or the byproducts of extracting bitumen or minerals from the oil sands, and tailings ponds, the impoundments where they’re pooled, form slick, metallic sheets of fluid that from the sky look like dabs of mercury dropped onto the landscape. Full of toxic metals, acids and ammonia, they pose a grave threat to the environment, too, in the event that the impoundment breaks and the tailings leak into the soil and water. Oil and gas companies have promised regulators and the public that they can reclaim tailings ponds to pre-tailings conditions, and both parties have entrusted the energy sector to do so. But despite their conspicuousness, during the expansion of the oil sands they’ve been a problem left in the background. Now, as the industry prepares to expand the oil sands even more, even the gradual decline of in-situ mining can’t halt the inevitable conclusion: the volume of tailings is increasing, and it can’t be reclaimed fast enough.

“We’re adding huge amounts of tailings to the landscape and we’re running out of time to clean everything up before companies reach the decline stage of production.” – Chris Severson-Baker, Pembina Institute

The AER’s changes, encapsulated in Directive 85: Fluid Tailings Management for Oil Sands Mining Projects, require tailings ponds to be reclaimed within a decade of the end of the mine’s life. It’s a direct update to the previous Directive 74, unveiled in 2009, which, looking back on it seven years later, seems to have failed to initiate larger-scale reclamation. Chris Severson-Baker, managing director of the Pembina Institute, a not-for-profit think tank, says Directive 74 was a missed opportunity to confront the urgency surrounding tailings pond reclamation. Directive 85, however, could remedy its failures. “This is the third attempt at collectively dealing with the issue of tailings,” he says. The first attempt wasn’t much of one: the oil and gas industry, as it grew from infancy into the behemoth it is today, was concerned less with long-term cumulative environmental effects than with production targets, and wasn’t sure how to best deal with tailings. That’s not to say companies didn’t invest in solutions – they did. But by about 2006, groups like Pembina were raising concerns about the increasing volume of tailings ponds “and the fact that there were no regulations requiring companies to stop adding to the inventory and, instead, to start reducing the inventory,” Severson-Baker says. “Then the problem got really big, and the forecast was even bigger because the rate of expansion of the oil sands was starting to accelerate.” That brings us to Directive 74, which Severson-Bakers says was “a good first step.” On the surface, the directive compelled oil sands operators to meet minimum technical requirements and to produce tailings management plans. The problem, he suggests, was that none of them did. A common argument was that the technical specifications outlined by the AER weren’t economically achievable. Also, there was no enforcement mechanism. Directive 85, in contrast, sets an end goal – total reclamation 10 years after the end of the mine’s life – but allows companies to come up with their own technologies and solutions. It puts stock in the idea that by giving them more space and fewer strict regulations, companies will be encouraged to come up with tailor-made solutions. The concern for groups like Pembina, however, is that companies are incentivized to come up with the cheapest and most flexible solutions – which aren’t necessarily conducive to fundamental change. “Meanwhile, the issue only gets more concerning every day,” Severson-Baker says. “We’re adding huge amounts of tailings to the landscape and we’re running out of time to clean everything up before companies reach the decline stage of production.” Industry is optimistic, however. John Brogly, the director of tailings environmental priority area with Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), is hopeful that Directive 85 will do more to slow the growth of tailings – and hasten their reclamation efforts – than Directive 74’s prescriptive approach. “Directive 85 is more open to new technologies, which, if you’re in the innovation space, is a good thing,” he says. “There’s already been lots of work going on to find better solutions to the tailings challenges than we currently have.” The problems, he says, have more to do with physical and technological challenges than political ones. “We could solve the tailings problem fairly quickly if we could just dry it all and then reclaim them terrestrially,” he says, referring to one method of preventing tailings from leaking into the environment. That’s relatively easy to do, but it involves burning lots of natural gas, and COSIA members don’t want to fix one environmental problem while exacerbating another – the production of greenhouse gases. The open mandate afforded by Directive 85 – at least so far, as a second phase will be developed soon – means companies can each pursue their own innovations and then share them with other COSIA members. Brogly cites work by Canadian Natural Resources on “non-segregating tailings,” and, similarly, technology from Imperial Oil that thickens tailings. Both technologies consolidate finer particles into a sandy mixture so they’re easier to remove from tailings. These are the kinds of innovations that will likely flourish under Directive 85, he says. The goal is collective progress through individual objectives. And though it sounds counterintuitive, Brogly says it’s driven by the market, too, since companies have a vested interest in maximizing the amount of bitumen from mines. That should speed up the pace of innovation, which is crucial as the issue of what to do with the trillion litres of tailings in the Athabasca region gains public currency. Reclaiming tailings ponds, then, has become a part of the corporate social responsibility curriculum because this once-overlooked issue could become a very public one. “If environmental groups and First Nations don’t feel there’s progress being made on this issue, I think it will become quite public,” Severson-Baker says. “Hopefully we’re not in a situation 30 or 40 years from now where we look at what happened and we learn about all these wrong-headed decisions made in the early ’80s and 2000s and ask, ‘What were we thinking?’ ” With the clock ticking, there’s no time for oil sands operators to make that mistake.