Selected oilsands projects may avoid new environmental assessment rules

In situ production is one of the two ways of extracting bitumen from the oilsands in Alberta

Oilsands projects that use steam to release bitumen from deep underground will likely get a pass from new federal environmental assessment rules — but Ottawa is still considering how to deal with those that use solvents instead of water.

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna introduced the new Impact Assessment Act in February in hopes of giving more credibility to the federal environment review process. It sets new timelines for reviews, eases restrictions on participants, adds transparency to the science behind decisions and requires assessments to account for social, health, economic and climate change impacts.

In addition to the legislation, the government also sets regulations that determine what types of projects will be covered by the new act — and environment groups are furious that so-called “in situ” oilsands projects are not on the draft project list.

“We see that as a federal abdication of responsibility,” said Patrick DeRochie, climate and energy program manager at Environmental Defence.

In situ production is one of the two ways of extracting bitumen from the oilsands in Alberta. Pit mining is used for deposits near the surface, but about 80 per cent of oilsands reserves are too far beneath the surface to allow for pit mining.

That’s when steam is injected deep into the ground to liquefy the bitumen, allowing it to be pumped to the surface — a process that requires a lot of energy, resulting in heavy greenhouse gas emissions.

Under Ottawa’s new legislation, projects can only trigger a federal assessment if they could have an impact on areas that fall under federal jurisdiction, which include emissions, as well as fisheries, species at risk and Indigenous rights.

The government says while in situ projects can fall under Ottawa’s jurisdiction because of their potential impact on emissions, they can be exempted when already subject to emissions rules — such as in Alberta, which is planning a hard cap on oilsands emissions at 100 million tonnes.

READ MORE: B.C. seeks court ruling on new pipeline regulations

READ MORE: Oil-by-rail traffic rises as B.C. battles over Trans Mountain pipeline

If the only area of federal concern for a particular project is climate, and that provincial laws exist to address that concern, it only makes sense to exempt those projects, said a government official familiar with the measures.

There’s a wrinkle, however: new in situ technology is emerging that uses solvents instead of steam, requiring less energy and resulting in fewer emissions, but posing different environmental risks that might fall under federal jurisdiction — fisheries, migratory birds, or Indigenous rights, for instance.

“Those still need to be looked at,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity since a final decision hasn’t been made.

It’s a catch-22 of sorts: technology that allows in situ oilsands projects to avoid a federal impact study by lowering greenhouse gas emissions could end up triggering just such a review by running afoul of different environmental issues that are also Ottawa’s purview.

No matter, said DeRochie, who wants such projects reviewed federally, no matter what.

Alberta’s plan for a hard cap has yet to be introduced, and could easily be repealed by a future government once it is, he argued. And in situ projects can impact water, land use and species at risk, whether they use solvents or not, he added.

DeRochie also noted that the government’s language is almost identical to a request made by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers last summer, suggesting Ottawa is caving to industry pressure at the expense of the environment.

“It’s really problematic,” he said. “It fits a pattern of industry attempting to delay, stall, block or water down regulations and legislation and they’ve been fairly successful at it thus far.”

In situ projects shouldn’t require federal permits because existing provincial review processes provide sufficient oversight, said Patrick McDonald, CAPP’s director of climate and innovation.

Investors are already skittish about Canadian energy project prospects, McDonald said, adding that Ottawa’s attempt to find balance between the environment and the economy is tilting towards the former.

“Right now there are challenges in getting major projects built in Canada, and in order to ensure a strong economy, we need to remove those barriers,” said McDonald.

“How do we find the balance to be able to get investment confidence in the industry?”

The whole point of overhauling the assessment rules is to instill confidence to the system for everyone, said McKenna’s spokeswoman Caroline Theriault.

“Our government is strongly committed to changing the way decisions on projects are made so that they are guided by science, evidence, and Indigenous traditional knowledge,” she said.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

UFV hosts revitalized Literary Festival featuring some of its previous writers-in-residence

Taking over Mission’s festival, UFV hopes its Literary Festival will be just as popular

Final list of 2018 election candidates confirmed for Chilliwack and beyond

Friday was the deadline for filing nomination papers of candidates running in the 2018 elections

Earl Marriott superstars sink Sardis football Falcons

Byron Ruvalcaba and Sam La Roue led the Mariners to a 34-20 home-field win over Sardis.

UPDATE: Woman from Surrey killed in head-on collision in Chilliwack Saturday

Witnesses in the vehicle struck told first responders the woman appeared to be asleep at the wheel

UPDATE: Province pledges nearly $49 million for new Chilliwack school

Construction on the K-8 school scheduled to begin October 2019 at site along Vedder River

B.C. tent city ‘devastated’ after flash flood

Maple Ridge mayor says that residents shouldn’t have to return to their flooded tents

Volunteer crew ready to build ramps for B.C. amputee

Jean Moulton will soon have an easier time getting in and out of her home.

VIDEO: B.C. tour offers unique underground glimpse of generating station

About 1,250 people expected at sold-out tour on Sunday

Allegations against Kavanaugh pose test for #MeToo movement

Aside from the Ford-Kavanaugh showdown, this has been a tumultuous season for the #MeToo movement

Parents of B.C. toddler who died in unlicensed daycare sue over negligence

‘Baby Mac’ was only 16 months old when he died in a Vancouver daycare

5 to start your day

A man charged in the death of Belgian tourist, a Syrian family feeling safe in B.C. and more

Syrian family can, finally, feel safe after settling in B.C.

Anglican Church of the Holy Trinity White Rock meets sponsored family for the first time

1st private moon flight passenger to invite creative guests

The Big Falcon Rocket is scheduled to make the trip in 2023, SpaceX founder Elon Musk announced at an event Monday at its headquarters near Los Angeles.

‘Game of Thrones,’ ‘Mrs. Maisel’ triumph at Emmys

In a ceremony that started out congratulating TV academy voters for the most historically diverse field of nominees yet, the early awards all went solely to whites.

Most Read