Many oilsands projects will not have their potential environmental impacts reviewed by the federal government under updated rules announced today, environmentalists warn.

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency released lists Friday outlining changes to the types of resource development and infrastructure projects that will routinely require a federal environmental assessment. The federal review is intended to look at possible environmental impacts under federal jurisdiction, such as impacts on waterways or greenhouse gas emissions.

One concern that environmentalists have with the new rules is they won't require environmental reviews for a growing type of oilsands development.

In-situ oilsands developments — projects where the oil is melted directly out of the ground rather than being mined and then processed later — were not specifically addressed in the previous list of projects requiring federal environmental assessments, said Keith Stewart, climate and energy campaign coordinator and energy policy analyst for the environmental group Greenpeace. And now, they are not included in the new list of projects requiring them.

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency's announcement lists the types of projects that once required a federal environmental assessment that no longer do, including:

  • Groundwater extraction facilities.
  • Heavy oil and oilsands processing facilities, pipelines (other than offshore pipelines) and electrical transmission lines that are not regulated by the National Energy Board.
  • Potash mines and other industrial mineral mines (salt, graphite, gypsum, magnesite, limestone, clay, asbestos).
  • Industrial facilities (pulp mills, pulp and paper mills, steel mills, metal smelters, leather tanneries, textile mills and facilities for the manufacture of chemicals, pharmaceuticals, pressure-treated wood, particle board, plywood, chemical explosives, lead-acid batteries and respirable mineral fibres).

The government also released a list of projects that did not specifically require a federal environmental assessment before but now do, including:

  • Diamond mines. 
  • Apatite mines.
  • Railway yards; international and interprovincial bridges and tunnels.
  • Bridges that cross the St. Lawrence Seaway.
  • Offshore exploratory wells.
  • Oil sands mine expansions.

Focus on 'major projects'

The government said the changes were made so that the agency’s work is focused on “major projects” that have the “greatest potential” to generate negative environmental impacts under federal jurisdiction, such as impacts on waterways, and other projects would not be “unduly burdened” with extra work.

CANADIANNATURAL/

A leak at the Primrose Lake oilsands project had released an estimated 1.5 million litres of bitumen into the environment as of the end of September. (Reuters)

The federal government heard from a wide range of stakeholders, including industry and environmental groups, before deciding what would be covered under the new rules.

Stewart said that while the government acknowledged environmental groups’ concerns, it did not make changes based on those concerns.

Most notably, he said Greenpeace is concerned about the lack of routine environmental assessments of in-situ oilsands developments. He noted that this type of project is the source of a huge bitumen leak in Northern Alberta. As of the end of September, the leak near Cold Lake had already released 1.5 million litres of bitumen – a mixture of oilsands, heavy crude and water into the environment. The Alberta government has ordered the project operator, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., to drain two-thirds of a lake in an effort to stop the leak.

Stewart said 80 per cent of known oilsands deposits are so deep that they are only accessible with in-situ technology.

"Yesterday, Environment Canada released report which projected that by 2020, this type of oilsands development will be generating more greenhouse gas emissions than all of the Maritime provinces put together today,” he added.

“They’re exempting themselves from environmental oversight over what’s going to be the biggest source of new pollution in the country in coming decades.”

The group that represents oilsands producers said developments will still face provincial environmental reviews.

“The province still has a mandate to do an assessment, so this eliminates two layers of doing the same thing — the provincial government will still do its review and it will be equally as comprehensive,” said Geraldine Anderson from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. 

While acknowledging that provincial environmental assessments will still be required for some projects, Stewart calls the permitting process for in-situ oilsands development in Alberta “a rubber stamp.”

In 2012, the federal government announced a major overhaul of the federal environmental assessment program, introducing fixed timelines for major projects and reducing the number of departments and agencies that can do environmental reviews from 40 to just three.