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Oil sands industry group says jury out on tailings ponds polluting Athabasca

‘More research needs to occur to indicate whether or not there’s anything of significance that we need to address,’ says CAPP official

Tim Querengesser is senior editor with Alberta Venture. Email Tim

Mar 3, 2014

by Tim Querengesser

Scientific research released last week by the federal government and published in the journal Environmental Science concluded that contaminated water from tailings ponds in the oil sands is leaching into groundwater and ultimately reaching the Athabasca River.
Reaction from First Nations living downstream of the oil sands, along the Athabasca, was immediate, centering on frustration with the energy industry but also government. But to understand how industry itself views the report, its ramifications, and also larger issues like Treaty rights, water monitoring and the state of the Joint Oil Sands Monitoring program, I got in touch with Mark Cooper, manager of oil sands communications for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

TQ: What’s CAPP’s reaction to the report and its findings?

MC: “We very much support good science, which this is, and encourage further studies on the matter. I know the Environment Canada scientist has said [that] it’s preliminary, [that] there’s no indication here that there’s any trend that should be a significant concern, and it’s also fact that water quality in the Athabasca River remains good. That being said, industry is very interested in ensuring that there’s continued good science and studies that go into monitoring our industry. That’s why we are funding that Joint Oil Sands Monitoring Program (JOSM), to the tune of about $50 million a year. And so this was important research and we support it fully.”

TQ: Is it CAPP’s position then that the scientific jury’s still out on whether tailings ponds are leaching into the Athabasca?

MC: “I think what we need to do, and I think what this environment Canada scientist looked at, is you know, specific markers that may indicate that there might be some seepage into groundwater. I think we would say that further research needs to continue. I’m not doubting the finding whatsoever; it’s important. But for us, and I think that Environment Canada would agree, more research needs to occur to indicate whether or not there’s anything of significance that we need to address.”

TQ: What’s CAPP’s reaction to several FNs pulling out of JOSM?

MC: “I can’t speak to the specific discussion between government and Aboriginal peoples and the situation here. I would say that we share some of the same concerns about the program moving along in a more fulsome way. There’s two things here. The Joint Oilsand Monitoring Program is a tremendous program that’s added many, many monitoring stations – water air – and that’s critical. I don’t think you’d find a region anywhere in the world for an industry that’s monitored the way the oil sands is monitored. There are a lot of areas we believe things could move along more quickly and we recognize one of those areas is ensuring that the government continues to work and respect the desires of Alberta’s aboriginal peoples to incorporate some of that traditional ecological knowledge. We would encourage, and we hope that both sides could get back to the table and get to an understanding because it’s very important that Canada’s Aboriginal people be at the table.”

TQ: What is industry getting right and not getting right when it comes to water?

MC: “I would say that when we talk water we talk two parts: we talk water quantity and water quality. When we talk water quantity, over the past several years, most of our oil sands operations recycle between 85 and 90 per cent of water that we use for our operations. As it relates to water quality, I think probably what these studies raise is the issue around tailings ponds. That for us is something that we take incredibly seriously, that we need to do a better job of managing tailings ponds. Tailings ponds are used for a couple of purposes. [They] prevent processed water from being discharged into a river like other industries do, but they also serve as an area so that water can be stored and recycled through operations, so we don’t have to continue to use water. That being said, right now oil sands, our tailings ponds stretch about 176 square kilometres in Alberta, and we recognize the fact that we need to get that number down.”

TQ: What’s CAPP’s long-term view on challenges via Treaty rights?

MC: “What’s important to note here is that CAPP believes strongly that successful relationships with Canada’s Aboriginal peoples is absolutely fundamental to our industry, and quite frankly to achieving the market access that we want to achieve. So, for us, we take it very seriously. It’s really important to point out, though, that there are tremendous good relationships between industry and Canada’s aboriginal people. There are about 1,700 aboriginal Canadians that work in the oil sands; over the past 14 years, Aboriginal companies have earned more than $8 billion in revenue through working relationships with the oil sands industry. There’s important financial relationships that are occurring, and benefits that are occurring to communities in Alberta. But I would say to that, too, it cannot all be done through a financial transaction. That we need to continue to do is work together to better understand the concerns that Canada’s First Nations are raising to deal with them, to do as much as we possibly can to mitigate any impacts around development. So we take it very seriously. It’s fundamental for us to have good, positive relationships.”

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