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Environment: New tar sands rules too weak to protect the Athabasca River

Environment: Canadian Citizen groups say new tar sands rules too weak to protect the Athabasca River
Posted on March 14, 2015

by Bob Berwyn

Staff Report

FRISCO — A set of proposed new water rules has unleashed a storm of protest in Canada, where citizen and conservation groups charge that the government is giving away the store to energy companies exploiting the tar sans of Alberta.

The updated regulatory framework sets guidelines on how much water oil sands companies can extract from the Athabasca River, and guidelines regarding the management and production of toxic tailings waste.

But a coaltion of groups — SumOfUs.org, Keepers of the Athabasca, Environmental Defence Canada and the Natural Resources Defense Council — said the rules don’t go nearly far enough to protect the environment.

“These new rules read like an oil industry wish list,” said Emma Pullman, a campaigner with the corporate watchdog group SumOfUs.org. “Minister Jim Prentice promised Alberta would be a world leader in the conservation and the environmental protection, but instead he has ignored First Nations, local communities and science in the name of corporate interests. Albertans will be disappointed to learn their government has bowed to corporate lobbying and put industry interests above our environment. It’s corporate power run amok,” Pullman said.

According to conservation groups, the new policies pose a threat to the health of the Athabasca River system and one of the world’s largest freshwater deltas, home to moose, bison and wolves. The river is a vital source of drinking water, an important wetland habitat, and supports two national and 30 provincial parks.

Today’s rules do not include an “ecosystem base flow” as a best practice that would protect the river from catastrophic damage during rare low-flow events. Instead the rules give a major exemption to oil sands giants Suncor and Syncrude to extract water directly from the Athabasca even if water levels are dangerously low.

Additionally, the proposed rules are mostly voluntary, according to Pullman, who said protecting the river requires set legal limits on diversions.

Already, more 30,000 Canadians have signed a petition calling on Premier Jim Prentice to go back to the drawing board and release policy that actually protects the Athabasca River.

“First Nations and Métis people made clear the need for stronger water withdrawal limits, and we’re disappointed to see that the government has decided bow to the interests of industry,” said said Jesse Cardinal of Keepers of the Athabasca.

“The Government of Alberta routinely lobbies in the United States claiming the province has strong environmental standards guiding tar sands development. And yet, here is another example announcing weak regulations that favors the industry and certainly fails to demonstrate leadership,” said Danielle Droitsch, the Canada Project Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.


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