Q: What is happening?
A: The AER has created a new tailings directive for the management of fluid tailings in the oil sands. The Tailings Directive establishes the requirements operators must meet including application requirements, the review and approval process, and fluid tailings management reporting as part of a phased approach to implementing the TMF. The new requirements call for all fluid tailings to be ready to reclaim within 10 years of the end of a mine’s life.
With the release of new regulatory requirements for oil sands tailings management, the AER piloted a new way in which stakeholders can actively play a key role in building regulatory requirements.
This is the first time the AER used a multi-stakeholder committee to build requirements that oil and gas operators in this province must follow. The committee, which included representation from oil sands mining operators, First Nations, Metis, the Municipality of Wood Buffalo, and environmental organizations, worked with the AER to create requirements that will address tailings growth today and in the years ahead.
Industry and the public also provided input to the AER on its website (talk.aer.ca) and by e-mail.
Q: When will the new requirements be in place?
A: The AER has an aggressive timeline to implement this new directive.
Q: What does the new directive look like?
A: Directive 085: Fluid Tailings Management for Oil Sands Mining Projects represents an evolution in how industry, the AER, and government will manage tailings. It addresses both existing fluid tailings and new fluid tailings growth.
The directive establishes the requirements operators must meet to ensure that all fluid tailings are ready to reclaim within 10 years of the end of a mine’s life, including fluid tailings management plan application information requirements. The directive will be updated regularly.
The directive uses an outcome- and risk-based approach, holding operators accountable for their fluid tailings as opposed to instituting universal requirements. The approach
Q: What’s different about the new directive?
A: The TMF provides the AER with Government of Alberta policy direction to manage tailings volumes and describes a holistic approach to enable more timely and progressive reclamation of the landscape.
Directive 074 was initially introduced to slow the growth of fluid tailings and the proliferation of tailings ponds. It was a prescriptive approach that measured operators’ tailings reduction performance with one requirement—the strength of their mature fine tailings. Strength referred to the extent to which the tailings were "dried" having removed the water, and trafficable, allowing for reclamation of the area.
The new tailings directive uses the overall volume of fluid tailings to track reduction. The new requirements are an evolution in how industry, the AER, and government will manage tailings. It tackles existing fluid tailings and new fluid tailings growth. Operators must treat fluid tailings and reclaim ponds progressively. All tailings ponds must be ready to reclaim within 10 years after a mine stops operating.
Q: How are you going to enforce the new directive?
A: Enforcement is a key part of ensuring compliance with AER regulations. Now that the AER has authority under EPEA, the Water Act, and the Public Lands Act, the AER has more enforcement options available.
The TMF requires the implementation of two additional enforcement tools and a compliance levy, and has additional triggers under the Mine Financial Security Program.
The TMF references four management levels. The management levels provide a means of managing fluid tailings accumulation so they do not grow to a point at which it is not possible to process and remove them from the landscape within a desired timeframe.
As fluid tailings volumes increase, the severity of management responses increases—from additional reporting to financial penalties and production cutbacks.
Simply stated, companies that are allowed to develop Alberta’s oil and gas resources must follow all rules, regulations, and requirements. If they don’t, they face strong consequences.
The AER’s enforcement tools include
In addition, on February 8, 2016, the AER released a new integrated compliance and enforcement system to make sure operators follow the rules and energy resources are developed responsibly. The new system is outlined in the Integrated Compliance Assurance Framework.
Q: How did the AER solicit and use stakeholder feedback when writing the new directive?
A: Developing any new directive takes a great deal of time, technical resources, and input from all stakeholders.
In response to feedback from stakeholders, the AER established—for the first time—a multistakeholder Tailings Regulatory Management Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) in September 2015.
The committee is composed of major oil sands mining companies operating in the Lower Athabasca Region, First Nations, Métis, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, environmental nongovernment organizations government organizations, and the AER.
The TAC was mandated to conduct a thorough technical review of a draft of the tailings directive and, using a consensus-based approach, provide recommendations to the AER on improving the regulatory management of fluid tailings in the province.
As part of this mandate, the TAC was asked to identify any gaps or deficiencies in the draft tailings directive, including those identified in feedback provided throughout the public comment period.
In collaboration with TAC members, the AER revised the draft tailings directive to improve the clarity and requirements in the document.
The directive, a summary of all stakeholder feedback, and other information on tailings is available here.
Q: What is the application process?
A: The AER is authorized to make decisions on applications for energy development. When an oil sands mining project application is received, a very thorough technical review is conducted.
The tailings management plan applications will follow the AER application process. The process will be supplemented as appropriate.
Q: What is a tailings pond?
A: Tailings are a by-product of the process used to extract bitumen from mined oil sands. Tailings consist of water, silt, sand, clay, and residual bitumen and are stored in ponds above or below ground.
Tailings are deposited in man-made tailings ponds surrounded by collection and monitoring systems.
Tailings ponds are essential to oil sands mining operations because they act both as holding areas, where most of the water needed for bitumen extraction can be recycled, and as settling basins for solids.
Q: What is the AER doing to minimize the negative effects of tailings ponds?
A: As Alberta’s energy regulator, the AER ensures that the oil sands are developed within government policy and in an environmentally responsible way—this includes considering cumulative effects. We are committed to protecting what matters most to Albertans: public safety and the environment, all while ensuring the rules are followed at every stage of development. If they’re not, companies face strong consequences.
The AER has comprehensive rules, regulations, and requirements in place for the safe design, construction, and operation of tailings ponds.
In March 2014, the AER assumed responsibility from Alberta Environment and Parks for regulating tailings ponds used in the development of Alberta’s energy resources.
There are some things that the Tailings Management Framework (TMF) does not address such as waterfowl protection, dam safety, and emissions from tailings ponds. These important issues are already being addressed through our regulatory requirements.
The AER has a strong regulatory process that includes the regular inspection of oil sands tailings dams. We ensure that all regulated dams are designed, constructed, operated, maintained, and decommissioned safely.
While the TMF does not address other issues related to tailings ponds, such as the safety of ducks or geese in the area, the AER has rules in place for the protection of waterfowl. Each oil sands mining operation must submit and follow a wildlife plan that prevents wildlife from being harmed by oil sands operations.
Q: When will tailings ponds be gone?
A: Tailings ponds take decades to build and cannot be eliminated overnight. It will take time and the commitment of the operators, the regulator, and the Government of Alberta to eventually eliminate tailings ponds from the landscape.
The TMF requires long-term performance goals that allow for innovation and adaptation while holding industry accountable to reduce fluid tailings volumes.
The TMF manages existing (legacy) and new fluid tailings from initial production to 10 years after mining has ceased. After those ten years, the land must be brought to a ready-to-reclaim state. This means that the fluid tailings are treated, are placed where they are supposed to go, and are displaying performance consistent with final landscape objectives, such as productive wetlands, lakes, or terrestrial land. Reclamation can only occur once the tailings area is no longer in use.
Q: If I have a question on the new requirements, how do I contact you?
A: Please e-mail email@example.com, contact talk.aer.ca, or call 1-855-297-8311.
Q: How will the AER manage the impact of tailings to the environment?
Q: How can I influence the process and affect the outcome?
Q: What's different with this new directive?
Q: What about enforcement?
Q: What about the environment?