Back in the early 1970s, the Alberta government effectively made a Faustian bargain. It allowed the oilsands industry to keep on mining, despite the sector not knowing how to clean up its fluid tailings waste — the assumption being that future technologies would solve the problem. Unfortunately, no silver bullets have been discovered, and the industry has kicked the can down the road on this mess for the last 50 years. In the meantime, the oilsands’ tailings ponds have grown so massive they impound a globally unprecedented 1.3 trillion litres of toxic waste. These tailings are unlike any other industrial by-product in the world; they contain residual hydrocarbons, a cocktail of toxic chemicals, and fine particles of clay and silt that remain suspended for centuries in a sort of artificial quicksand.
This grim situation should deeply concern all Canadians. By allowing oilsands tailings ponds to continue to grow, the Alberta government is signing up all of Canada for decades of further uncertainty and risk. If any of these ponds were to breach, an unimaginable environmental disaster would result, affecting the Mackenzie River Basin as far as the Arctic Ocean. Moreover, according to recent estimates by Environmental Defence Canada, these ponds represent as much as $50 billion in total clean-up costs — of which only $1.3 billion is held in securities. All of the major political parties in Alberta seem strangely quiet on one of the largest fiscal issues facing the province. Should the oilsands mining sector face bankruptcies in the coming decades, the environmental and fiscal liability of these ponds would inevitably become a burden borne by Albertan and Canadian taxpayers.
We must face the uncomfortable reality that the future economic viability of oilsands mining in the context of the 21st-century global energy transition is uncertain at best. It follows that companies must be held accountable for addressing their environmental impacts today, while they are still around to do so. After five decades of procrastinating, the time has come for the Alberta government to finally step up and lift the substantial weight of these liabilities off the shoulders of Canadians.