As the rest of the planet strives to curb carbon dependence, Alberta is instead stepping on the gas. The industry-funded Alberta Energy Regulator has apparently promised the petroleum sector they will soon offer 15 minute automated approvals on about 90 per cent of new drilling permits. What’s next? A drive through window? A roadside vending machine?
The urgency to expedite new petroleum projects stands in stark contrast to the utter disinterest in cleaning up the old ones. Alberta is perhaps unique in the world in having no mandatory timelines for reclaiming oil and gas wells. There are about 300,000 conventional oil and gas wells in the province, all of which eventually require cleanup. Over half, or 167,000, are listed as inactive or abandoned. The oldest dates back to 1918. What’s the rush?
The Alberta government says this collective liability is a mere $18.5 billion. Internal figures from the regulator analyzed by the Alberta Liabilities Disclosure Project instead peg the cleanup bill at up to $70 billion. This snapshot does not of course include the almost 3,000 additional drilling permits to be dispensed this year by the regulator’s expedited algorithm.
At the current leisurely reclamation rate it could take 126 years to deal with the methane-leaking mess already created. Yet somehow there is an assumption that the oil and gas industry is going to be around more than a century from now to settle up, even though almost 80 per cent of Alberta’s conventional crude reserves have already been extracted. Not to worry — Alberta regulators have ensured that industry posted funds to cover 0.3 per cent of cleanup costs.
The massive taxpayer exposure from abandoned wells pales in comparison to even larger liabilities accumulated from decades of lightly regulated bitumen mining. According to other internal figures from the Alberta Energy Regulator, reclaiming tailings ponds now covering 88 square kilometres and counting could cost a further $130 billion, assuming such a thing was even technically possible.
What to do? Apparently Ottawa and Alberta have hatched a plan to allow some bitumen producers to begin to dump tailings ponds into the Athabasca River. Decades of effort have failed to find a credible treatment option for the 1.3 trillion litres of toxic slurry built up since the 1970s. Yet oilsands firms may soon be authorized to release effluent treated by an as-yet-unproven technology into a river with one of the largest freshwater estuaries in the world. What could go wrong?
Michael van den Heuvel, a water expert from the University of Prince Edward Island summed up the grim environmental endgame for this decades-long problem “It’s going to happen sooner or later,” he told the Globe and Mail. “And it’s better it happens in a controlled and managed fashion than later on when nobody has the money.”
It is rare to have such an unvarnished assessment of the trajectory of the environmental and economic catastrophe now unfolding in Alberta. According to leaked government documents, the red ink associated with decommissioning all pipelines, well sites and tailings ponds totals $260 billion and climbing.
Even as the petroleum party is winding down in Alberta, denial seems in full swing. Premier Jason Kenney acts like a drunken host offering exiting oil companies all manner of lavish inducements to stick around a while longer.
As promised, the first law tabled by his government was the Carbon Tax Repeal Act. Labour codes are watered down under the Orwellian title of the Open for Business Act. Corporate taxes are slashed, costing the already beleaguered treasury $4.5 billion over the next four years, according to the NDP Opposition. Kenney also pledged to wind down government support for clean energy projects, while spending $30 million in public funds on a so-called war room to counter climate criticism of the petroleum sector.
On an unrelated note, 5,000 residents of the town of High Level and the Dene Tha’ First Nation are on indefinite evacuation due to the highest fire danger rating possible. Between 1961 and 1982, the average annual area burned by wildfires in Alberta was 185,000 hectares. By 2015, the five-year average was 339,000 hectares. In 2016, the Fort McMurray wildfire alone burned 589,000 hectares.
A University of Alberta study from 2018 showed that half of the boreal forests in the province may eventually be permanently lost to wildfires and drought, taking most of the 4,500 forestry jobs with them.
The coming decades will be a challenging time for us all. Transitioning our economy away from cheap abundant fossil fuels that have powered prosperity for decades will not be easy, or cheap. But pretending we do not need to make a shift to a low carbon future is increasingly untenable and irresponsible.
Alberta is in for a particularly rough ride due to decades of regulatory neglect, mounting environmental liabilities, and bloody-minded belief — stoked by opportunistic leaders — that another oil boom is a provincial birthright. Sooner or later it will be obvious to everyone that the oil party is over. It is time to clean up.