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News Release: Can We Trust the Alberta Energy Regulator?

September 28, 2023

A new report exposes the Regulator’s ‘dated’ and insufficient policies.

The results of the Kearl investigation highlight the risk of trusting the AER to act in the public’s best interest. This includes the AER’s approval of Suncor’s faulty plan to mine half of the McClelland Lake Wetland Complex (pictured). Photo © Phillip Meintzer.

Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA) has significant concerns with the results of the independent investigation into the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) and how it handled the leak and spill of oil sands tailings at the Imperial owned Kearl oil sands mine. The results of this investigation call into question other decisions made by the regulator, such as its approval of Suncor’s Fort Hills mine expansion.

Back in February, 5.3 million litres of toxic tailings spilled from a tailings pond at Imperial’s Kearl mine. Following this news, the AER issued a public notice which also stated that a tailings pond at Kearl had been leaking significant volumes of tailings for nearly nine months, since at least May 2022. Neither the AER or Imperial notified any of the Indigenous communities within whose territories the Kearl mine is situated, or any downstream nations while this leak was happening.

The report from Deloitte, summarizing the results of their investigation into the AER, and published on September 27, 2023, states that:

 “Based on procedures performed, we have concluded that the AER followed its stated practices in response to the Kearl incidents.” And that: “The content within the AER’s policies, standards, procedures, and manuals for emergency response, incident reporting, investigation contain sections of information and guidance which is dated and not in line with the C&IR Framework and/or the expectations of external stakeholders interviewed.”

These independent findings raise major concerns over the AER’s internal policies. Albertans rely on their regulator and its policies to make decisions in the best interest of the public and the environment.

“If allowing a leak to proceed for nine months, without informing potentially impacted Indigenous communities doesn’t violate any of the AER’s own policies, it follows that AER’s policies are insufficient,” says Phillip Meintzer, conservation specialist with Alberta Wilderness Association. “These findings only increase our concern that the AER cannot be trusted to make decisions in the best interests of Albertans.”

AWA has similar concerns with the AER’s approval of Suncor’s expansion into the McClelland Lake Wetland Complex.

The complex is a large wetland area near Fort McMurray. It features peatlands and a provincially significant patterned fen which has formed over the past 8 to 11 thousand years. Peatlands are crucial for fighting climate change, they pull carbon from the atmosphere and store it. McClelland may store up to the equivalent of 35.5 million tonnes of CO2. The complex is a hotspot for biodiversity. 205 bird species use the area, including four species at risk. McClelland Lake is one of the last remaining safe landing places for birds in a region dominated by toxic tailings ponds.

Suncor’s Operational Plan is supposed to guarantee the protection of the unmined portion of the McClelland Lake Wetland Complex from the impacts of construction and mining at their Fort Hills Oil Sands Mine. A major component of this Operational Plan is a nearly-14-kilometre-long underground wall which will split the wetland in two. According to Suncor, this wall will be based on existing technology used in tailings ponds. This wall, the associated infrastructure, and Suncor staff will need to work flawlessly for decades to ensure that the unmined half of the wetland is protected from harm.

The AER approved Suncor’s Operational Plan in September 2022, but an AWA report from April 2023 found several major concerns with Suncor’s plan. The plan contains many significant gaps, which pose a significant risk to the ecological diversity and function of the unmined area. Yet it had already been approved by the regulator.

The submission of AWA’s report resulted in the AER opening a Reconsideration Process for its approval decision. Phase 1 of the Reconsideration Process concluded on July 27, but AWA is still waiting on the AER to decide on whether to proceed with its reconsideration. If the results of the Kearl investigation are anything to go by, then we should be cautious of trusting the AER to make the responsible decision.

For more information please contact:

Phillip Meintzer, AWA Conservation Specialist

(403) 771-1647

With rare exception cattle ranchers have been the best of guardians of the land entrusted to them. May we continue to be conscientious caretakers of this precious resource and hand it on to another generation unspoiled.
- Gerald Brewin, Rancher in the Taber area 1929 - 2016
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