It’s the Amazon of the North, but how do we keep the tar sands from destroying it? | Map courtesy Govt. of Alberta
The NWT-Alberta transboundary water agreement won’t slow development of the tar sands, the largest single threat to water quality in the Mackenzie Basin.
Michael Miltenberger was clear on that point when he signed the agreement with the Alberta government last month. Tar sands mines that now use about one percent of the available water will be allowed to take up to five percent.
What isn’t clear is whether the agreement can sustain the environment minister’s boast that the water flowing into the Northwest Territories will be “clean, productive and abundant for all time.”
Is the will there?
Such an outcome demands political will, according to Jennifer Skene, a Ford Fellow at the National Resources Defense Council. Skene tracks issues in Canada for the NRDC, a New York-based global environmental advocacy organization that can call on the services of 400 lawyers, scientists and other experts, plus more than $100 million in annual funding. Protecting the vast Mackenzie Basin will require Alberta to finally take regulatory control of the tar sands, she says, and for the NWT to hold its partner’s feet to the fire if it doesn’t.
Early signs from the Alberta government are not promising, Skene wrote on Switchboard, the NRDC’s staff blog in mid-March, just before the trans-boundary accord was signed.
In a review of Alberta’s new Tailings Management Framework, Skene found that it “unfortunately enables industry to sidestep taking meaningful action on one of the most pressing environmental issues of tar sands development.
“It is further demonstration that the Alberta government is not ready for serious action. The failure of the Alberta government to finally release a comprehensive framework that stops the growth of tailings adds to the urgency to the calls to halt expansion of the tar sands industry.”
Full of potentially good things
In an earlier blog post, Skene wrote that although the transboundary agreement doesn’t deal specifically with the tar sands, “it has the potential to finally penetrate the secrecy around the vast industrial project and mitigate its worst effects.”
Skene noted that the agreement’s water quantity objective is defined as “an amount of water equal to or greater than the sum of needs for the ecological integrity of the aquatic ecosystem plus 50 percent of the available water supply to the downstream party, calculated at the border…”
“With additional analysis, these broad, research-dependent definitions could result in precise requirements for water quality and quantity. Were this to happen, Alberta would be much more accountable for tar sands’ environmental effects,” Skene wrote.
“As it is, vagueness in environmental laws has allowed Alberta to stretch standards so that they essentially become meaningless.
Explicitly mandating certain criterion for water quality and quantity would increase pressure on Alberta to mitigate the effects of tar sands so as to remain in compliance.”
The transboundary agreement also establishes a bilateral management committee, a quasi-judicial body that could, at either party’s request, address issues related to violation or amendment of standards set forth in the agreement.”
A penchant for secrecy
Alberta has not established rigorous monitoring or information disclosure for the mines, and the industry remains clouded in secrecy. The province has kept much of the information on the integrity of mines and tailings dams confidential, despite promises for more disclosure, wrote Skene.
“Nor have broad ecosystem effects of tar sands been investigated. This leaves the public and other governments like the NWT in the dark about possible health and environmental consequences of tar sands mining.”
The agreement requires Alberta and the NWT to share information about development, which sets the stage for “a heightened level of transparency for the tar sands industry,” Skene wrote.
But because “the draft agreement is vague in many areas, much will depend upon the political commitment by the Alberta and NWT governments to follow through.”
“If Alberta is held accountable for setting and implementing the water quality and quantity standards outlined in the document and for the information sharing and monitoring requirements, this bilateral agreement could be an important step in addressing the growing impacts of tar sands development on the region’s water resources.”