The governments of Alberta and Canada have announced they will slash funding for routine monitoring of contaminants leaking from tar sands tailings ponds into the Athabasca River.
This is the latest example of Canada’s (and Alberta’s) disregard for Indigenous peoples and the environment, two issues that were cornerstones of Justin Trudeau's election platform.
Tailings ponds filled with more than one trillion litres of highly toxic sludge from bitumen extraction sit along the banks of the Athabasca River. The toxic ponds (they kill thousands of birds each year) are not sealed.
Each day, they leak 11 million litres of toxic effluent into the water table and the Athabasca River.
When I participated in the Northern River Basins Study in the early 1990s, downstream communities, most notably Fort Chipewyan at the west end of Lake Athabasca, had been complaining about perceived health impacts of this contamination for more than a decade. Both levels of government ignored their concerns then and have continued to do so, agreeing only to monitor contaminant levels. Now, they have broken even that promise.
Alberta continually trumpets how much its oil industry bolsters the Canadian economy, but the province has completely failed to hold the industry accountable for the mess it creates.
Tens of thousands of abandoned wells leak toxic contaminants into the atmosphere and into the soil.
The Trudeau government has committed $1 billion to render an unknown fraction of these wells harmless. This is commendable, but complete cleanup of abandoned and orphaned wells is estimated to cost as much as $70 billion.
Alberta is, belatedly, introducing new regulations to reduce the ability of companies simply to walk away from unproductive wells.
Estimates of the cost to clean up the ocean of toxic bitumen tailings along the Athabasca River range from $50 to $200 billion.
This is more than the $41 billion in royalties the Alberta government has received from tar sands since 1969.
To date, tar sands companies have contributed less than $1 billion to the fund established to pay for the cleanup of tailings.
The economic bonanza Alberta claims it has provided to Canada from tar sands development has been bought at the cost of a gigantic future debt that Canadians will have to pay.
Besides strengthening regulations governing shutdown of oil wells, Premier Jason Kenny should also require that tar sands companies make meaningful deposits to the fund to clean up the tailings. Otherwise, all Canadians will be on the hook for cleaning up the toxic mess.
The toxic tailings ponds are also something of a ticking time bomb. Imagine that something (an earthquake, for example, or bank erosion due to a flood) causes a breach in one of the ponds.
Tons of toxic sludge would race down the Athabasca River into Lake Athabasca, possibly killing the lake, and poisonous water would continue down the Slave River through Wood Buffalo National Park toward Great Slave Lake.
If the tailings pond breach happened to occur when high water levels were flooding into the Peace Athabasca Delta (a world heritage site), the delta might also be poisoned irreparably. Although the risk of such an event is low, its cost would be astronomical for the environment and for Indigenous ways of life. Even barring such a catastrophe, the continued leakage of toxic materials into the groundwater and Athabasca River pose a grave threat to the health of downstream communities. It is time the governments of Canada and Alberta acknowledge this threat and take steps to eliminate it.
Low oil prices mean the tar sands industry is on the ropes. The climate crisis means that bitumen should stay in the ground. Instead of flailing around trying to prop up a dying, climate-killing industry, Canada and Alberta should be working with the oil industry to realize Alberta’s very high renewable energy potential (wind, solar, geothermal).
All major oil companies have renewable energy divisions and they also have the expertise to bring the new energy economy to fruition, particularly geothermal power.
Canada can be an energy superpower, but it must be a renewable energy superpower. Let’s just do it!
Michael Healey of Peachland is a professor emeritus at the University of B.C.