Alberta has announced that it is easing up on tailings regulations, as several mine operators in the region are asking for reduced regulatory pressure. It’s a move away from the regulations, known as Directive 74, that have governed Alberta oil sands for the last six years.
Directive 74 required mining companies to ‘reduce tailings and provide target dates for closure and reclamation of ponds,’ and to report to the industry watchdog on their progress. But the industry has failed to meet the requirements of the legislation – and the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) watchdog stopped enforcing them in 2013, the last time a company was punished for not hitting its cleanup targets.
Parker Hogan, a spokesman for Kyle Fawcett, the Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development Minister, said, ‘What we have heard is that despite the best efforts and significant investments, companies have had significant challenges to achieve the requirements that are in Directive 74.’
Since then, the ERCB has been replaced by a new regulatory body, the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), and Directive 74 has been replaced by the Tailings Management Framework (TMF), a new regulatory structure with different aims. (The new framework is accompanied by strict groundwater use rules.)
The key change has been to refocus efforts on growing industry sustainably rather than directly on reducing tailings ponds. The new regulations give industry more leeway in some areas, allowing them to slow the growth of tailings ponds rather than working to actually reduce them; but they also promise new restrictions in other areas.
Kyle Fawcett laid out in more detail the requirements of TMF:
- limit the amount of tailings that can be accumulated,
- push companies to invest in technology to reduce tailings
- establish thresholds to identify when companies must act to prevent harm to the environment
- require companies to post financial security to deal with potential remediation issues and
- ensure tailings are treated and reclaimed throughout the life of the project and are ready to reclaim within 10 years of the end-of-mine-life of that project.
Hogan said, ‘this is a shift towards the management of tailings in a way that respects the needs to mobilize new technologies and harness innovation so we can manage this size and scale of environmental impacts to a point we can move away and into reclamation.’ Directive 74 may have been abandoned, but the long-term goals that informed it are still in place.
So what does that mean for mining in Alberta? Are things getting easier or tighter? Overall, the new regulations are mining-friendly. They’re designed to facilitate industry expansion without making unacceptable environmental sacrifices. And that means they’re more long-term, but also that there’s a missing piece of the puzzle: for TMF to come together, new technology that isn’t online yet will be needed. Kyle Fawcett points out: ‘Technology unlocked the oilsands. It will be key to finding the long-term, effective solutions to tailings ponds management.’
Some of that new technology, though, is in place. PhotoSat has extensive experience working with players in the oil sands sector: while oil sands companies seek to accelerate tailings reclamation, reduce the need to build more tailings ponds and reduce their inventories of mature fine tailings, they struggle to do it without accurate, up-to-date survey data. Scanning tailings areas with GPS or ground-based LiDAR comes with a host of problems, including team safety.
50cm resolution satellite ortho photo
© DigitalGlobe 2014
1m PhotoSat elevation image (accurate to better than 15cm in elevation)
1m contours (accurate to better than 15cm in elevation)
By comparison, PhotoSat’s unique satellite surveying technology, facilitated by software that builds on seismic data processing tools, produces highly accurate elevation data faster, with better definition of steep slopes and without subjecting survey crews to risky environments. It’s a process that’s used to safely survey Suncor’s TRO (Tailings Reduction Operation) in Alberta. PhotoSat has mapped their tailings site twice monthly since 2013, as well as producing automated toes and crests. Many oil sands and other types of mines have adopted PhotoSat mapping to improve tailings monitoring and measurement.
To learn more about our topographic processing system, or to find out how it could facilitate your resource project, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-604-681-9770.