New rules will curtail the size of tailings ponds and limit water use from the Athabasca River in Alberta's oilsands, says Environment and Sustainable Resource Development Minister Kyle Fawcett.

Industry must improve its management of wastes, Fawcett said in a news conference Friday.

Fawcett said the Tailings Management Framework will: 

  • limit the amount of tailings that can be accumulated,
  • push companies to invest in technology to reduce tailings
  • establish thresholds to identify when companies must act to prevent harm to the environment,
  • require companies to post financial security to deal with potential remediation issues and
  • ensure tailings are treated and reclaimed throughout the life of the project and are ready-to-reclaim within 10 years of the end-of-mine-life of that project.

Fawcett acknowledged that the plan depends on companies coming up with solutions that don't yet exist.

"Technology unlocked the oilsands," he said. "It will be key to finding the long-term, effective solutions to tailings ponds management."

The 220 square kilometres of tailings — a toxic mix of water, silt, leftover bitumen and solvents — have long been one of the industry's toughest environmental challenges. Separating the water from the contaminants on a scale big enough to meet the need remains a challenge.

The framework is the second time the government has tried to create rules around tailings cleanup.

The first attempt in 2009 were soon delayed when companies were unable to meet the regulations.

The framework was met with guarded optimism by industry watchdogs. 

The Pembina Institute described the plan as a step forward by offering preliminary guidance to industry, said analyst Erin Flanagan.

“The framework’s objective is encouraging — but it will only be effective if matched with clear implementation and enforcement mechanisms," she said. "The AER (Alberta Energy Regulator) must set firm limits and hold industry to account for existing and future tailings waste.”

Fawcett also announced a Surface Water Quantity Management Framework which he says will limit how much water can be taken from the Athabasca River by oilsands companies by:

  • limiting the amount of water used during low-flow periods,

  • setting water withdrawal limits for all oilsands operators, and

  • maintaining an adequate quantity of water for Aboriginal river navigation and pursuit of traditional activities.

"These are dramatic cutbacks for all operators, but they are essential in protecting the lower Athabasca," he said.

with files from Canadian Press