The Truth About Canadian Oil Sands Tailings Ponds

OPINION: This past week there were some rumblings in the news cycle related to oil sands tailings ponds and the possibility of tailings seeping into groundwater. The Commission for Environmental Co-operation did not confirm the accusations made by the anti oil and gas groups.


The discussion was brought on by a report published by the Commission for Environmental Co-operation, a multinational collaboration between Canada, Mexico, and the United States.

The report was commissioned in response to accusations from anti-oil and gas organizations: Environmental Defence, Natural Resources Defense Council and anti-oil and gas demonstrator Daniel T’seleie (his main claim to fame was being arrested at the Standing Rock protests in 2016).

They claimed that tailings ponds were leaking four billion litres of oil sands processed water per year and polluting the Athabasca River.

Now the Commission for Environmental Co-operation is not a friend to the energy industry which makes the findings in their report interesting. First, though there was a presumption of leakage, the Commission did not establish whether the presence of chemicals in the river is from seepage or are naturally occurring.

There are and have always been pervasive natural bitumen seeps along the banks of the Athabasca River. First nations used the bitumen from the banks to seal their canoes and the first white explorers in the late 1700s wrote about the oil sheens on the Athabasca River.

Second, the Commission’s report noted that there is little likelihood that seepage of oil sands processed water is reaching surface aquifers in the region. They noted that the sediments in the delta of the Athabasca did not have the same chemical composition as the sediments in the tailings ponds. Also, they found no trace of dissolved bitumen-derived organics (natural or anthropogenic) in any water samples from the Athabasca River.

In short, the Commission’s report did not confirm the accusations made by the anti oil and gas groups.

What those groups left out of their claims is that Canadian oil sands producers invest heavily in tailings management to reduce risks to the environment. They are one of Canada’s largest investors in clean technology and environmental research.  So, what exactly have oil sands producers done to reduce their environmental impacts?

First, they continue to drive innovation in water use. 75% of the water used in oil sands mining is recycled from tailings and other sources. 80% of the water used in steam-assisted extraction is also recycled. Companies are also advancing tailings treatment technology. Suncor has managed to decrease total aggregate fluid tailings since 2016.

Oil sands producers are also major spenders on tailings management technology, having spent $10B on tailings management technologies in the last decade.

Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, a consortium of oil sands producers, focuses on funding the development of different technologies and initiatives that will help reduce the impacts of oil sands production. The Alliance currently has 77 active tailings management projects representing an investment of over $260 million.

Regulations require producers to begin the reclamation of tailings ponds within 10 years of final operations of a mine. The success of those regulations can be seen in Syncrude’s bison herd thriving on a reclaimed oil sands mining site.

And oil sands producers pay when they mess up. Suncor was recently fined $275,000 for not complying with water permits. If only our senior politicians paid a tenth as much when they get caught breaking the law.

When we look at our energy sector we need to consider if Canada isn’t producing the oil the world needs then who will? You can be sure that it will be someone who cares a lot less about the environment.

The Canadian oil and gas sector is the world leader — spending billions that support the clean technology and environmental protection sectors in Canada and inventing the top technologies around the world. 

If environmental activists thought globally about the environment, they would realize Canada can do the most for our global environment by exporting our clean tech know-how, and the oil that supports it.

Cody Ciona is the research and issues coordinator for the Canadian Energy Network. The Canadian Energy Network aims to highlight the facts and dispel misinformation about hydrocarbon development in Canada.

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