Oilsands regulator accused of letting rules slide

The Pembina Institute says Imperial Oil is being allowed to break rules about tailings for its new Kearl oilsands plant.

The Pembina Institute says Imperial Oil is being allowed to break rules about tailings for its new Kearl oilsands plant.

Alberta's Energy Resources Conservation Board gave Imperial Oil conditional approval of its plan to deal with tailings at the plant north of Fort McMurray, which will start operating in 2012.

Imperial said it wouldn't be able to meet new ERCB targets for turning toxic liquid tailings into more manageable solid wastes for the first six years of operation at Kearl, because it needs time to work on new technology.

The ERCB ordered Imperial to submit a new plan by 2012 outlining how it can speed up tailings reduction, and to go above and beyond requirements after 2018 to make up for its slow start.

Simon Dyer, oilsands program director for the Pembina Institute, an environmental think-tank, said the permission to go ahead without meeting requirements amounts to allowing Imperial to break the rules.

"We think that provides too much flexibility and sends, you know, the wrong message — that Alberta is not serious about cleaning up oilsands tailings."

Companies are supposed to collect 50 per cent of liquid tailings every year and solidify them, and this is an exemption, Dyer said.

"They're not going to be hitting that target until 2018."

Davis Sheremata of the ERCB said Imperial is doing everything it can to meet the target.

"The goal is to get tailings ponds closed and ready for reclamation, pure and simple," he said. "We're working with companies to make that happen as quickly as possible, so that, in the long term, we have tailings ponds that are being managed properly and that are getting closed on time."

The ERCB issued new regulations in February 2009 that impose stricter rules on fluid waste, called tailings, created by oilsands production.

The conditional approval of Imperial's plans will ensure the environmental outcomes meet the targets of the new regulations on the longer term, Sheremata said.

"It's a long-term goal, and we're doing it in a way that we feel will protect the environment and at the same time keeping companies, you know, viable in the long term," he said.

The ERCB has told Imperial that Kearl's overall reductions must make up for the slow start by 2023.

Kearl, which is slated to begin operating in 2012, will have one tailings pond, which is supposed to be decommissioned by 2038.