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Due to the severe risks to global biodiversity and ecosystem function from greenhouse gas emissions, AWA is unable to support the development of Alberta’s bitumen/oil sands deposits, due to their higher intensity greenhouse gas emissions.

The terms Oil sands, Tar Sands and Bitumen Sands are all in usage in Alberta. The term Tar Sands was used in the earlier days of industrial development, but was later largely replaced by the more benign-sounding Oil Sands. The product contained within the sands is in fact more akin to bitumen than either oil or tar. On these pages, AWA uses the term “Oil Sands” as the one in most popular usage, though this is not intended to align AWA to any one position in relation to the resource or its extraction.

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    Oil Sands Mackay River

    Oil Sands, MacKay River (J. Hildebrand)

    Greenhouse gas emissions and their contribution to anthropogenic climate change pose a severe risk to biodiversity and ecosystem function worldwide. AWA does not support the development of Alberta’s oil sands deposits due to the high intensity greenhouse gas emissions produced through their extraction and eventual combustion.

    Recognizing that oil sands development is proceeding, AWA believes that regional land, air and water impacts of oil sands exploration and development must be properly regulated to uphold Alberta’s and Canada’s international obligations to mitigate climate change, to maintain and restore biodiversity, to protect species at risk, and to use water resources sustainably in a manner that is consistent with the maintenance of wilderness values.

    There are significant environmental impacts associated with oil sands exploration, extraction, transport, and processing, for which extensive scientific evidence exists. Some effects can be mitigated by technological innovation and stringent regulatory requirements, but until these technologies are proven, a precautionary approach must be employed. Planning development today, on the basis of future technology being developed to mitigate the impact is fundamentally flawed.

    Full-field life-cycle planning must be required for all new developments including phase-out, remediation, and reclamation planning. Adequate reclamation liability must be assessed on a per-project basis that accounts for all remediation and reclamation costs, and does not leave Albertans vulnerable to major financial risks.

    Tailings pond

    Syncrude tailings ponds (C. Wearmouth)

    AWA believes both the provincial and federal governments must act quickly to develop more stringent science-based environmental regulations that would inform a world-class air, water, and biodiversity monitoring system. Similarly, the public must be confident that these regulations will be enforced. Until a world-class monitoring system has been developed, AWA recommends that a precautionary approach must be taken, and that new leases should not be issued. AWA also supports accessible and meaningful consultation processes with all stakeholders, especially where treaty rights are implicated.

    One of the by-products produced through oil sands extraction is the fluid waste collectively known as tailings or tailings effluent. Tailings fluids are produced when water and chemicals are used to separate bitumen from other materials (e.g., clay, sand and silt). Following the separation of bitumen, these tailings are then housed in large storage reservoirs known as tailings ponds. The term tailings pond is misleading given the large volumes being stored, and there are now more than 1.4 trillion litres of tailings effluent scattered across Alberta’s oil sands region. As of 2020, there are 30 active tailings ponds across nine oil sands projects, and the combined fluid tailings area now encompasses nearly 120 km2.

    The extent and volume of the tailings ponds poses a major environmental risk due to the potential for spills and seepage which can harm nearby ecosystems and the water supply for neighbouring and downstream communities. Oil sands operators have not yet been able to demonstrate how they can safely store and/or treat tailings effluent to avoid causing environmental harm, and industry has only put aside a fraction of money needed to cover the costs of reclamation – now estimated at $28 billion.

    The Government of Canada and the Government of Alberta are currently developing new regulations under the Fisheries Act which propose to allow for the release of tailings effluent back into the Athabasca River so long as the effluent is treated to meet specific limits for harmful substances. AWA opposes the proposed plan to allow for the release of tailings effluent back into the receiving environment, and we oppose the creation of any new tailings ponds until a comprehensive tailings reclamation plan has been developed for the entire oil sands region. This plan should prioritize environmental outcomes and the wellbeing of downstream communities.

    2021

    AWA participated in the annual work planning process to outline monitoring priorities for the Oil Sands Monitoring 2021/22 program year. We were disappointed to see that the wetlands monitoring Technical Advisory Committees only received 45% of their requested funding for the year, with terrestrial biodiversity monitoring only receiving roughly twothirds of the funds they had requested. One major concern with the funding decisions that was voiced across the Oil Sand Monitoring program is that the geospatial work plan was cut by 85%. This will result in negative consequences for the intended monitoring work to be conducted by other Technical Advisory Committees.

    AWA participates on the Oil Sands Monitoring program wetlands monitoring and terrestrial biodiversity monitoring Technical Advisory Committees. These committees are accountable for designing monitoring programs to address the priorities set out by the Oversight Committee.

    2020

    AWA urges the Canadian government to reject Teck Resources Ltd.’s proposed Frontier open pit bitumen mine because of significant adverse effects to the environment and to the rights, land use and culture of Indigenous groups who use the project area. The federalprovincial joint review panel for Teck Frontier concluded that the proposed mitigation measures were not proven to be effective or to fully mitigate project effects. AWA also cited Alberta’s weak oil sands mine reclamation regulations, including inadequate financial security provisions and timelines, which we believe make it unlikely these mines will be reclaimed by their operators.

    In February, Teck decides to withdraw the mine project. AWA welcomes this decision.

    OSM 202021 funding decisions were made public. They included significant cuts to Terrestrial Biodiversity Monitoring ($4.2 million compared to $8.3 million funded the year before) and Wetlands Monitoring ($0.6 million compared to $2.7 million the year before). AWA looks forward to revived programs for 202122.

    In early April 2020, AWA voiced concerns about the Government of Alberta’s March 31 decision to suspend most energy industry environmental compliance reporting requirements. We were unconvinced that this was a pandemic safetyrelated measure since all data gathering and recordkeeping requirements remained. We joined First Nations and other ENGOs in raising concerns when Alberta further suspended most environmental monitoring requirements in late April and early May; this occurred at a time when other economic activities were reopening with pandemic safety measures in place. Although reporting and monitoring resumed in July 2020, AWA remains concerned about the interruption of compliance reporting and loss of data collection without transparent justification.

    2019

    In November, AWA becomes the AEN delegate to the new Wetland Monitoring TAC.

    From autumn 2019 to February 2020, intensive workshops and meetings occurred at the Terrestrial Biological TAC to confirm and ensure monitoring programs align with OSM “stressorpathwayreceptor” conceptual models. There were discussions of ongoing integration across OSM Program elements of Air, Surface Water, Ground Water and Data and Integrated Analytics. The new Wetlands TAC built upon OSMrelated Wetlands work of past few years and had similar discussions.

    2018

    A positive new governance framework for the joint federalprovincial Oil Sands Monitoring (OSM) program was finalized. It includes significant Indigenous participation at all levels. This OSM framework includes a role for ENGOs on technical advisory committees (TACs). TAC members provide advice on monitoring and evaluation activities to date and review new work plans.

    Since December, AWA has been the Alberta Environmental Network (AEN) delegate
    on the Terrestrial Biological Monitoring TAC.

    2015

    Oil Sands Monitoring program (OSM) begins as a collaboration between the Governments of Canada and Alberta. It replaces the previous Joint CanadaAlberta Oil Sands Monitoring (JOSM) program. The program is created to monitor, evaluate, and report on the environmental impacts of oil sands development in the Oil Sands Region, to assess the risks of impacts, and to improve our understanding of the state of the environment in an open and transparent manner.

    2012

    The Joint CanadaAlberta Oil Sands Monitoring (JOSM) program begins.

    October 7, 2016

    News Release: Feds failing to prevent migratory bird deaths on tar sands tailings ponds

    For Immediate Release Oct 7, 2016 Share Feds failing to prevent migratory bird deaths on…

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    October 7, 2016

    Take Action: Put a Stop to Migratory Bird Deaths on Tailings Ponds

    Dear Wilderness and Wildlife Defender, On Migratory Bird Day, help us ensure that migratory birds…

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    June 1, 2016

    Memorable McClelland Lake Wetlands

    June 2016 Wildlands Advocate article by Carolyn Campbell. Carolyn Campbell next takes you hundreds of…

    Read more »

    May 1, 2015

    AWA News Release: Oil and Gas Development Transforming North American Landscapes

    Accelerated drilling activity is transforming significant portions of North America’s natural landscapes. University of Montana…

    Read more »

    March 13, 2015

    ENGO News Release: Government Plan Fails to Protect Lower Athabasca River When Most Needed

    The lower Athabasca River will continue to be exposed to significant risks under the Surface…

    Read more »

    December 18, 2014

    AWA News Release: Alberta’s New Water Plan Pulls Back on Prior Environmental Promises

    Alberta’s  Water Conversation Action Plan released yesterday outlines intended actions on four water topics the…

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    November 3, 2014

    AWA News Release: Caribou Worse Off After 10 Years of Alberta Recovery Plan

    Ten years after Alberta’s 2004-2014 woodland caribou recovery plan began, habitat disturbance keeps increasing far…

    Read more »

    May 13, 2014

    Birds and Tar Sands Tailings Ponds: Ever Safe to Land?

    Wild Lands Advocate article, April 2014, by Carolyn Campbell. The Oil Sands Regional Bird Monitoring…

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    February 27, 2014

    AWA News Release: Leases Reveal Cumulative Effects Management Absent in Alberta Tar Sands, Forests

    AWA News Release. Industrial forestry and energy leasing are far outpacing environmental protection and promised…

    Read more »

    December 20, 2013

    AWA News Release: Northern Gateway Pipeline–Approval Mostly Silent on Upstream Impacts for Alberta’s Boreal Forest and Foothills

    The National Energy Board (NEB) yesterday recommended approval of the Northern Gateway pipeline across central…

    Read more »

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