Banned for decades, releasing oilsands tailings water is now on the horizon
(Source: CBC News) The federal government has begun developing regulations to allow oilsands operators in northern Alberta to begin releasing treated tailings water back into the environment, something that’s been prohibited for decades.
Currently, companies must store any water used to extract oil during the mining process because it becomes toxic. The massive above-ground lakes are known as tailings ponds, which are harmful to wildlife and have resulted in the death of birds who land on the water, on multiple occasions.
For years, local Indigenous groups have raised concerns about contamination from development, and how tailings ponds could further pollute their land and drinking water.
But now, industry leaders and some scientists are convinced the water can be treated enough so it can be safely discharged and they say it can reduce the environmental risk of storing an ever-increasing volume of tailings.
For decades, oilsands companies have used freshwater to help separate the oil from the sand and other materials found in mines.
Over the years, the industry has improved its techniques to recycle more and more of the water it uses. Still, mines require about three to four barrels of new water to produce one barrel of bitumen.
After the water is used, it is stored in tailings ponds since the material contains various toxins, bitumen residue and elevated levels of salt.
The tailings ponds in northern Alberta, adjacent to oilsands mines, store about 1.4 trillion litres of waste water. That’s the equivalent volume of more than 560,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools, which would stretch from Edmonton to Melbourne, Australia, and back if placed end-to-end.
“The biggest challenge is that we have a massive amount of water that needs to be treated,” said Mohamed Gamal El-Din, a University of Alberta professor who specializes in oilsands tailings water treatment.
In order to return tailings ponds water to the environment, the water does not need to be clean enough to drink, he said, but safe enough to meet the government’s forthcoming standards. It’s similar to how towns and cities across the country treat sewage to the point where it can be released to the environment.
In both situations, Gamal El-Din said the fluids can be purified to a point where it can be drinkable water, but municipalities and industry have deemed that too costly.
“There are technologies that can do that,” he said, but “it’s not economically feasible.”
A Crown-Indigenous working group has been working on the creation of oilsands tailings water release standards since the beginning of the year and the federal government wants to release the draft regulations in 2024 and final regulations in 2025, under the Fisheries Act.
In a statement, Environment and Climate Change Canada said allowing treated wastewater to be released “will help slow the growth of oil sands tailings ponds, and reduce the associated environmental and health risks” of storing the toxic material.
Some experts are quick to point to examples in some other countries where harmful mining water was unexpectedly released because infrastructure failed, including a dam disaster in Brazil that killed 270 people.
They argue that continuing to build more tailings ponds in the oilsands region only heightens the risk of an unexpected release, which could damage the environment even more.
Currently, companies that are polluting water have to keep building more tailings ponds and hold the fluid in perpetuity.
“This scenario is not tolerable,” said Les Sawatzky, a Calgary-based water resources engineer who has worked on projects around the world, including with oilsands companies.
Others point to the recent flooding in British Columbia, and the way that natural disaster has caused a mess with various harmful materials like fertilizer and fuels, as a reason why a potential discharge of treated oilsands tailings water is preferable to just letting the tailings ponds continue to grow.
“If the oilsands release is controlled and satisfies the appropriate criteria, then I would have more comfort than something that’s a huge phenomenon and uncontrolled at the moment,” said Greg Lawrence, an engineering professor at University of British Columbia in Vancouver, who has researched water and tailings in the oilsands since 2013.
“There’s been flooding in the Fraser Valley and that is of a far greater concern, I would say, than any regulated and controlled release,” he said.
Oilsands operators are required to clean up the land they disturb and return it to a state similar to how it was before development began. The industry argues those remediation efforts are prolonged by decades without the ability to release treated tailings water.
“The more water that’s stored on site, the less of the site itself is able to be reclaimed until there’s an opportunity to release water and free up that space,” said Brendan Marshall with the Mining Association of Canada.
Marshall is confident the industry will be able to meet the standards created by regulators and the focus should be on achieving water quality, rather than concerns about the volume of tailings that exist.
“If you have a lot of water that can be safely treated to an acceptable threshold then gradually releasing that water over time will do that river no harm,” he said.
Some Indigenous and environmental groups aren’t convinced and are concerned the tailings water release will cause even more harm to the Athabasca River which flows northeast from Jasper National Park through the oilsands region before emptying into Lake Athabasca.
The river is considered the lifeline for many communities.
First Nations and Métis Nations have complained for years how the oilsands, as well as other industries, have caused water volumes and quality to drop, which they say has caused fish populations to decrease sharply over the years and some species to disappear.
Research has found elevated cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan, a community located north of Fort McMurray on the western tip of Lake Athabasca, and high levels of heavy metals, such as mercury, and arsenic in animals that are hunted and consumed in the region.
“I’m angry that we have to be having this discussion of what do we want to happen,” said Jesse Cardinal, executive director with Keepers of the Water, an Indigenous environmental group.
“The fact that they’re even entertaining releasing the tailings ponds into the Athabasca River — this is an international human crime,” she said from her home in the Kikino Métis Settlement, about 175 kilometres northeast of Edmonton.
She feels like communities are stuck because they oppose the release of the tailings water, but the status quo is also unacceptable because of the seepage and dam failure risks of tailings ponds.
Cardinal doesn’t understand why the oilsands sector is allowed to expand operations and cause more tailings while this issue remains unresolved.
“We know that the industry has other options to treat the tailings ponds, but they cost a lot more money. We’re saying do what’s right, not what’s fast and easy,” she said.
The Fort McKay First Nation is surrounded by nine different oilsands mines and 20 tailings ponds. The community is one of nine First Nations and Métis Nations in the Athabasca region who are part of the federal government’s working group to discuss potential impacts to Treaty and Indigenous rights.
Releasing mine waste water is a major concern for the community, said Bori Arrobo, Fort McKay’s director of sustainability.
“We don’t want to swap one environmental liability, which is the tailings ponds at the moment, for another, which could be the deterioration of the quality of the water in the Athabasca River and the downstream,” he said.
“It’s important to be able to participate at all the tables where these discussions are happening.”
While the federal government develops regulations, the industry is testing various chemical and biological methods of treating tailings water.
The trick is to find the most effective methods that are also cost-effective and don’t produce other environmental impacts, like more greenhouse gases.
“In other words, it treats the water the way you want it to, but it doesn’t have any of these other ancillary effects that no one wants,” said John Brogly, the water director for Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA).
In 2020, there were 57 active research projects through COSIA at a cost of $150 million and an additional 86 projects focused on water.
There are different obstacles to overcome in treating tailings water, mainly the toxicity and the salinity.
As the industry has become better at recycling water, the salt levels increase every time the water is used in the extraction process. Similarly, the water quality degrades the more it is re-used.
The tailings water also contains thousands of different naphthenic acids and other organic compounds, some of which are harmful to aquatic life.
Much more intensive research is needed to develop treatment technology and to help craft regulations to release tailings water, said Lesley Warren, a professor with the University of Toronto’s department of civil and mineral engineering. She’s spent almost a decade studying Syncrude’s pit lake, which the oilsands company created by filling an empty mine pit with tailings and capped with fresh water.
Canadians across the country should care about the environmental issues surrounding the oilsands, Warren said, since everyone consumes products that come from oil.
“We have to recognize that our way of life is founded on all of these resources that we’re mining and so, we’re part of this discussion,” she said.
N.W.T. peatlands store 24 billion tonnes of carbon and are worth protecting, experts say
(Source: CBC News) The N.W.T. is home to nearly one-fifth of Canada’s peatlands, according to a researcher who says they’re an asset worth protecting in the fight against climate change because of their capacity to store carbon.
Lorna Harris, a postdoctoral fellow and ecosystem scientist at the University of Alberta, said peatlands cover about 230,000 square kilometres of land in the N.W.T., and they store 24 billion tonnes of carbon. That’s the carbon equivalent of using nearly 200 billion barrels of oil.
“It is a large portion in the N.W.T., relative to some other provinces,” she said, noting that the Mackenzie River basin, stretching from northern Alberta to the N.W.T., is the second largest expanse of peatland in Canada next to the Hudson Bay Lowlands.
Peatlands are wetland ecosystems filled with organic matter that has collected over thousands of years. They are a type of carbon sink, because through the decaying process, that matter deposits carbon into the surrounding soil and peat, rather than releasing it into the atmosphere.
Peatlands cover swaths of temperate, boreal and subarctic regions and can be found in forests and in permafrost too.
A World Wildlife Fund-Canada (WWF) study unveiled at the Conference of the Parties (COP26) said Canada stores more than a quarter of the world’s soil carbon, and suggests keeping that carbon in the ground — so it doesn’t further exacerbates global warming — is key to the country’s climate efforts.
Harris, the lead author of a separate study published recently in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, concludes the biggest threats to northern peatlands are human activities like mining, logging and agriculture, as well as wildfire and permafrost thaw.
Steven Nitah, a senior advisor to the Indigenous Leadership Initiative and one of lead negotiators in the establishment of the Thaidene Nëné Indigenous Protected Area, said parts of the N.W.T., like its peatlands, are “globally significant” and “provide a nature service that’s definitely required to give us a fighting chance” in the face of climate change.
He said the first thing that needs to be done is to identify those important areas and to work across levels of government — Indigenous, territorial and federal — to protect and manage them.
The federal government has committed to protecting or conserving 25 per cent of Canada’s land by 2025 and working toward protecting 30 per cent by 2030, as part of the country’s efforts to fight climate change and defend vulnerable species and ecosystems.
Nitah said Canada has protected about 15 per cent of its land so far.
“To double that protection, they [the federal government] need to conserve or protect the quantum land roughly the size of Manitoba,” he said, pointing out an opportunity for the N.W.T. to advocate that its lands be protected.
Nitah said the N.W.T. can continue to demonstrate itself as a leader in Indigenous land protection and management by identifying the right areas for protection as the federal government works toward that goal.
Harris also outlined Indigenous stewardship as one of the key solutions for protecting the essential carbon service provided by northern peatlands.
Another solution for protecting peatlands, highlighted by both Harris and Nitah, would be for the carbon offset market to place a value on their capacity to store carbon.
“You can go in and damage a peatland and then, any reduction in that damage is considered an offset,” said Harris, of the current offset system. “Whereas just leaving the peatland alone, without it being at risk of any damage, there’s no real value given to that.”
Harris said it’s dangerous to only put value on carbon when it’s part of a restoration activity for damage that’s already being done, especially when it comes to peatlands. She also described the carbon stored in peatlands as being “irrecoverable” because it would take roughly 1,000 years for one metre of peatlands to re-accumulate, if it were to be stripped away.
“Restoring them now is not going to gain enough carbon that was lost from the damage that was caused,” she explained.
Putting a value on the carbon service provided by the natural environment could also help fund land protection and management programs in the N.W.T., said Nitah, who pointed out the territory doesn’t have a big enough tax base to fund such projects on its own.
“The responsibility for management certainly is within the Canadian jurisdiction, but the responsibility for paying for it should be global,” he said.
Funding from the carbon offset market could be used for wildfire management practices like vegetation management, said Nitah, which is sometimes also called forest thinning.
Nitah said it’s something Indigenous people have traditionally done to clean the forest floor, to reduce the amount of fuel that a wildfire can burn and to increase biodiversity.
Wildfires are becoming more frequent and more severe because of the world’s changing climate, and they release carbon that is stored in the trees that are burned — but they can also damage the peatlands below.
Harris said if peat is dry at the surface of the ground, it too, will burn.
“I think up to a metre has been lost in some peatlands here in Western Canada,” she said.
Peat fires are notoriously difficult to fight: they are especially smoky, and they can burrow underground, re-emerging days or even months after they appear to have been put out.
Harris said fire can also speed up the rate of permafrost thaw, which releases even more carbon into the atmosphere.
Harris said the N.W.T. government has a “big role to play” in protecting peatlands, because decisions about mining development, oil and gas exploration and forestry are made at the territorial level.
“They should really be developing some kind of management plan for peatlands, or a land-use plan, identifying where … the peatlands are in the region, where they can protect the peatlands, [and] where they can restore peatlands as well.”
Harris also wants to see the federal government increase research funding and implement a national peatland strategy that outlines a set of goals and targets to help guide provinces and territories in their individual decision-making processes.
A main objective, she said, should be not to dig up peatlands or remove the peat that’s inside them.
“Just leave it in place,” she said.
Hiring Support & Resources To Grow Your Organization
Hiring Support & Resources To Grow Your Organization
Are you planning on hiring? This is your last chance to secure up to $25k (plus additional funding to help with training) from ECO Canada’s Science Horizons Internship program.
Previous employers who’ve received funding have hired for the following roles – how will you grow your team?
To be eligible for funding, organizations must hire young professionals (30 and under) for full-time roles using science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills within the environmental and sustainability sectors.
Make sure you apply soon as funding is limited!
ECO Canada is the steward for the Canadian environmental workforce across all industries. From job creation and wage funding to training and labour market research, we champion the end-to-end career of an environmental professional.
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Feds announce $14.7 million to fight invasive species in Alberta, B.C. mountain parks
(Source: Global News) The federal government is committing funds to fight aquatic invasive species in five mountain national parks in Alberta and British Columbia, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault announced Saturday.
Guilbeault made the announcement in Banff, Alta., with $14.7 million being made available over the next five years to prevent and manage invasive species in Banff, Jasper, Kootenay, Waterton Lakes and Yoho national parks.
The money is to be used for both prevention and education programs.
Environment and Climate Change Canada said the parks are vulnerable to non-native species of mussels as well as the parasite that causes whirling disease in fish.
Invasive species can be spread by people enjoying mountain rivers and lakes.
The work will also support the recovery of species at risk, including westslope cutthroat trout, Athabasca rainbow trout and bull trout.
Guilbeault was in Banff after spending Friday in Calgary meeting with oil industry representatives and Alberta Environment Minister Jason Nixon.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said he welcomed Guilbeault’s visit to the province.
“We appreciate that he came to Alberta to meet our minister and we hope he’ll continue to listen to the Albertan perspective,” Kenney told a news conference on Saturday.
“Without Alberta and without the oil industry and their involvement, it would be impossible for Mr. Guilbeault and his government to attain their objectives to when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”
Kenney said he hopes to bring a similar message when he meets with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa in short order. He said there will be a focus on the Oil Sands Pathways to Net Zero, an agreement between five major producers to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and will require major investment.
Government of Canada announces $200M to address climate change by restoring carbon-rich ecosystems through nature-based solutions
The world is currently experiencing an unprecedented climate and ecological crisis. Climate change is warming our planet and altering the water cycle, resulting in extreme temperatures, flooding, droughts, and wildfires. It’s also contributing to the destruction of our planet’s rich biodiversity, which negatively impacts our communities and our quality of life, and threatens the livelihoods of Canadians who rely on it. Protecting more nature across Canada directly addresses these challenges.
Nature-based solutions are among the most powerful tools we have to address climate change. They leverage the power of Canada’s ecosystems to realize a number of key sustainability goals: preventing biodiversity loss, improving our resilience to extreme weather events, improving our air and water quality, securing our food supply, and capturing and storing carbon emissions that drive climate change. Actions like protecting wetlands, for example, helps capture and store carbon, while improving land management to make communities more resilient to extreme heat or flooding.
Building on Canada’s commitment to protect and conserve nature, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, the Honourable Steven Guilbeault, today announced that applications are now being accepted for the Nature Smart Climate Solutions Fund. With up to $200 million available over the next five years, the funding will help individuals and organizations reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions by conserving, restoring, and enhancing the management of critical ecosystems. Supported projects will focus on restoring degraded ecosystems and conserving carbon-rich areas at high risk of conversion. Proposed projects would also focus on improving land management practices, especially in the agriculture, forest, and urban development sectors. Funding applications for projects to be completed in 2022–2023 will be accepted until January 25, 2022.
Important work under the Nature Smart Climate Solutions Fund, launched earlier in 2021, has already begun. Fourteen projects received funding in 2021–2022 and are projected to conserve up to 30,000 hectares; restore up to 6,000 hectares; and contribute to the enhanced management of up to 18,000 hectares of wetlands, grasslands, and riparian areas. The Fund will provide over $71 million over three years for projects, including three Prairies-based projects with Ducks Unlimited, the Nature Conservancy of Canada, and the Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation.
We can’t fight the climate or ecological crises without protecting nature—and initiatives like the Nature Smart Climate Solutions Fund are already making a difference in Canada’s efforts to protect 25 percent of lands and oceans by 2025, working towards 30 percent by 2030, while building community resilience.
“Canada is home to 24 percent of the world’s wetlands, 25 percent of temperate rainforest areas, and 28 percent of remaining boreal forests. These ecosystems are globally significant for absorbing carbon, mitigating the impacts of climate change, and protecting biodiversity. Investments to conserve, restore, and enhance these vital ecosystems and increase their resilience support our targets to address climate change and contribute to Canada’s efforts to transition to a net-zero economy by 2050, help stem biodiversity loss, and contribute to job creation in the green economy.”
– The Honourable Steven Guilbeault, Minister of Environment and Climate Change
Nature-based solutions are defined by the World Conservation Union as “actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems that address societal challenges.”
Over the next ten years (2021–2031), the Nature Smart Climate Solutions Fund will support projects to restore, enhance, and conserve inland and coastal wetlands, peatlands, grasslands, and forests to capture and store carbon and to update policies, programs, and tools to better enable nature-based climate solutions.
The Government of Canada is investing $4 billion over the next ten years (2021–2031) in the Natural Climate Solutions Fund. Activities include:
- The 2 Billion Trees Commitment, led by Natural Resources Canada ($3.19 billion);
- Nature Smart Climate Solutions, led by Environment and Climate Change Canada ($631 million); and
- Agricultural Climate Solutions, led by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada ($185 million).
These ecosystems are critically important habitat for Canada’s wildlife, including migratory birds and species at risk.
Applicants can apply to the Place-Based Actions stream, the Sector-Based Policy stream, or the Reverse Auction stream.
The Nature Smart Climate Solutions Fund supports Canada’s goal to protect 25 percent of lands and 25 percent of oceans by 2025, working towards 30 percent by 2030.
June 1-3, 2022
Call for Abstracts
June 1-3, 2022
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Learning and Celebration at ECO Canada’s 5th Annual ECO Impact Event
ECO Canada’s highly anticipated and unique learning series and awards gala, ECO Impact, is back and this year ECO Canada are excited to return to learning, networking, and celebrating in person, in Calgary!
The theme for the upcoming ECO Impact event is Driving Sustainability to Invest in a Greener, More Resilient and Inclusive Future. There will be presentations from experts across industries on ESG and how Canada’s environmental workforce is involved.
Sessions include ‘The Evolution of ESG’, ‘Making It Meaningful: Indigenous Workplace Inclusion’ and ‘Climate Tech: Putting Canada on the Map’.
As always, there’ll be great networking opportunities with environmental professionals from across the country and plenty of celebrations as we find out who Canada’s latest leading environmental professionals are.
Date: 2 & 3rd February, 2022
Location: Hyatt Regency, Calgary, AB
CBN’s 2022 Canadian Brownfield Conference
Join us for CBN’s 2022 Canadian Brownfield Conference. It will be a two half-day virtual conference during the afternoons of April 5 & 6, 2022.
Register this year for $99.00.
Rates increase in 2022.
ESAA Job Board
Check out the new improved ESAA Job Board. Members can post ads for free.
- Intermediate Environmental Scientist / Project Manager – Arletta Environmental Consulting Corp.
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- Intermediate/Senior Environmental Specialist (Multiple) – Summit, An Earth Services Company
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