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A Drop in the Bucket

Alberta’s new water pollution policies would let the tar sands industry off the hook.

President Obama has yet to make a final decision about the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline, but at a recent town hall event, he called tar sands mining “an extraordinarily dirty way of extracting oil.” On Friday, the Alberta government introduced rules that would ostensibly "get tougher" on tar sands operators, as Bloomberg put it—but in fact have little teeth and would allow pollution to continue.

As Earthwire reported in the above video last year, tar sands mining companies divert millions of gallons of water every day from the Athabasca River to process bitumen, the fuel component of tar sands. More than 99 percent of that water never goes back to the river because it’s too contaminated. Along with other toxic sludge, it's held in giant waste lagoons known as tailing ponds, which leak at a high rate.

The new rules seemingly protect the Athabasca—which supplies one of the world’s largest freshwater deltas—from being overdrawn, establishing weekly limits on how much water can be removed depending on the river’s flow. But as NRDC advocate Danielle Droitsch (disclosure) explains, there’s a gaping loophole: The rules are entirely voluntarily. Plus, two of the largest tar sands companies, Suncore and Syncrude, are exempt—they can still withdraw water from the Athabasca during low-flow periods, which can be catastrophic to the health of the river’s ecosystem.

Tar sands companies are happy with the new rules, which can't be a good sign. The Canadian First Nations and environmental scientists who have called for stricter standards aren't. They understand all too well that oil and water don’t mix.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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