OTTAWA – The federal government has confirmed it is backing away from assessing the environmental impact of new oilsands projects, one day after acknowledging it won’t come close to meeting greenhouse gas reduction targets.
A final list of the types of projects that will require a federal environmental assessment was released Friday. The list contains no mention of in-situ oilsands mines, which are expected to be the industry’s most common type of development in the future.
“This is the largest single source of (greenhouse gas) growth in the country and yet the federal government is not going to be playing a role there,” said Keith Stewart of Greenpeace.
On Thursday, Environment Canada released a report concluding that Canada is on pace to get halfway to its 2020 emissions target under the Copenhagen accord.
In-situ mines involve heating underground bitumen deposits enough to soften them so they can be pumped up.
In some ways, they are considered more environmentally friendly. They require no vast open pits or lake-sized tailings ponds of toxic water.
Environmentalists have pointed out they still result in habitat fragmentation on the surface through seismic lines and roads to wellheads. But their most significant impact results from heating the bitumen, usually through steam. Generating that steam burns a lot of natural gas, increasing the carbon intensity of the resulting barrel of oil.
The industry’s gradual shift toward in-situ production is generally blamed for a recent rise in the average amount of carbon dioxide released per barrel of oilsands crude. About 80 per cent of the resource can only be recovered using in-situ methods.
Alberta government figures say in-situ production creates anywhere from one to 10 more kilograms of CO2 per barrel than open-pit mining.
Stewart said there are also unanswered questions about some in-situ techniques. He points to a Canadian Natural Resources project that has been leaking bitumen for months near Cold Lake, Alta., despite the company’s attempts to stop it.
Large expansions to existing open-pit mines will still be reviewed. As well, the federal environment minister has discretion to call a review into any project if the minister feels it is warranted. And all new oilsands projects will still be reviewed by Alberta.
Environmental lawyer Melissa Gorrie said the province seems to be tightening its idea of what needs to be reviewed. She said a recent decision means two in-situ projects won’t have any public review at all after the province ruled local aboriginal groups weren’t directly affected by them.
“There’s been a lot of problems even getting hearings triggered for in-situ projects in the province.”
A spokeswoman with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers said industry welcomes the finalized list.
“The provincial government will still be doing a review and assessment and it’s equally stringent,” said Geraldine Anderson. “It’s basically a reduction in duplication.”
In background documents, Ottawa says the goal of the changes is to “achieve more predictable and timely project reviews, reduce duplication, strengthen environmental protection and enhance consultation with aboriginal groups.
“The amendments to the regulations ensure federal environmental assessment requirements are focused on those major projects that have the greatest potential for significant adverse environmental effects in areas of federal jurisdiction.”
Gorrie said it’s a mistake to think in-situ facilities don’t have significant impacts.
“Just because it’s not a big open-pit mine that everybody can see doesn’t mean that there aren’t significant impacts that need to be addressed and require an assessment.”
— By Bob Weber in Edmonton