(PDF Fact Sheet)

The oil sands industry operates within some of the most stringent and comprehensive regulations for resource development anywhere in the world. Detailed regulations are in place with respect to resource access, and to the protection of all aspects of the environment, including a focus on water, land and air. A regulatory process is in place in Alberta involving both provincial and federal regulators. Before any oil sands project is approved, there are extensive public reviews undertaken generally leading to a public hearing. Comprehensive project approvals are reviewed, and project operating approvals must be renewed every 10 years.


Fact: There are several national and provincial regulators responsible for overseeing and approving projects in the oil sands industry.

  • Provincially, Alberta Environment, the Energy Resources Conservation Board  (ERCB) and Alberta Sustainable Resource Development are the primary regulators of the industry; however, many other areas of government also have regulating jurisdiction.
  • On a federal level, Environment Canada, the Department of Oceans and Fisheries and Transport Canada are the primary regulators.

Fact: Before any project even begins, operators must participate in a very thorough application and review process which takes several years to complete.

These are the basic steps that oil sands companies engage in from a project’s proposal to completion

  1. A private company purchases oil sands rights for a specific area.
  2. An initial public disclosure is developed outlining the general nature of the proposed project.
  3. The company consults with First Nations and stakeholder groups in the area.
  4. The company makes an application for development to the ERCB, which regulates safe and responsible development of Alberta’s energy resources. They also consult Alberta Environment, which issues operating approvals for all aspects of the development, and other Provincial and Federal agencies as required.
  5. An environmental impact assessment, water use request and socio-economic impact study are submitted by the developer. These applications are reviewed by government staff and any required additional information is supplied until staff are satisfied the application provides all information required to form a decision. Stakeholder consultation continues throughout the entire process.
  6. Public hearings may be held if outstanding issues remain.
  7. A decision on the project application is made in the public’s interest by the ERCB.
  8. If approved, development proceeds based on terms set out in the project approval.
  9. Annual reporting and monitoring and 10-year renewal is required during operations as is participation in regional multi-stakeholder forms.

 The process for reviewing and approving these applications is transparent, open to the public and often occurs over several years.

Fact: Land use is controlled and is extensively monitored.

  • All aspects of land use are subject to review and approval including surface access, timber harvesting, surface disturbance and reclamation.
  • Industry is required by law to file a Conservation and Reclamation Plan as part of its initial application to develop an oil sands project.  It must keep the plan up-to-date as its development proceeds. 
  • The Conservation and Reclamation Plan must be formally re-approved every 10 years.
  • The Conservation and Reclamation Plan must detail the scope and timing of all surface disturbances and resulting reclamation activities throughout the life of the project through to the completion of the final reclaimed landscape.
  • Conservation and Reclamation Plans must define how and when tailings ponds will ultimately be reclaimed.

Fact: Alberta Ambient Air Quality Objectives are some of the strictest in the world.

  • The Wood Buffalo Environmental Association (WBEA) operates 15 active, continuous air monitoring stations in the oil sands region and 27 passive, interval air monitoring stations. 
  • There are about 10 times more air monitoring stations in the Wood Buffalo region as there are for the United States on a per capita basis.
  • WBEA monitors about 70,000 square kilometres in the region and northwestern Saskatchewan.
  • WBEA conducts a Terrestrial Environmental Effects Monitoring Program to monitor the impact of oil sands emissions in northeastern Alberta and northwestern Saskatchewan.
  • Air quality data for the oil sands region is available in real time from the WBEA web site along with historic air quality information and the results of the Terrestrial Environmental Effects Monitoring Program.
  • The Alberta Clean Air Strategic Alliance conducts studies to monitor improvements and lapses in air quality, and its studies indicate air quality has consistently improved and continues to improve in the Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo region.

Fact: Reclamation fees are paid before the land is ever disturbed, but the actual reclaiming of land takes many years.

  • Industry is required to post financial security equivalent to the cost of reclamation to ensure all land is reclaimed irrespective of the project’s economic performance.
  • A reclamation certificate can only be issued once vegetation is mature enough to demonstrate long-term productivity. 
  • Once land is certified, it becomes open to public access, so operators may wait to apply for certification if the reclaimed land is adjacent to on-going industrial activity for reasons of safety and security. 
  • In March 2008, Alberta issued its first-ever oil sands land reclamation certificate.

Fact: In 2007, Alberta was the first jurisdiction in North America to legislate GHG reductions on large industrial facilities.

  • In the first year of legislated GHG reduction, companies made 2.6 million tonnes of reductions, which is equivalent to taking 550,000 cars off the road.

Fact: Tailings result from mining activity, and there are strict environmental controls regulating how tailings ponds are contained and reclaimed.

  • Tailings ponds and other structures on oil sands operations must comply with Canadian Dam Safety Regulations to ensure the integrity of the containment structures.
  • No tailings water can be released to the Athabasca River or any other watercourse.
  • The ERCB, Alberta Environment, and Alberta Sustainable Resource Development worked together to develop a new directive for managing tailings. The Tailings Performance Criteria and Requirements for Oil Sands Mining Schemes directive defines the objectives associated with tailings management and establishes performance-based criteria.

Fact: Alberta Environment regulates the oil sands industry’s water use under the Water Act.

  • All agricultural, industrial, municipal and commercial operations must apply to Alberta Environment for a licence to divert and use water.
  • Alternatives to fresh water must be investigated for all water use before licences are issued.
  • The available supply of water, environmental requirements, apportionment agreements and existing licences are all taken into consideration by Alberta Environment before a licence is issued.

Fact: The Athabasca River is closely monitored to responsibly allocate the average annual flow of the river, and it has the lowest water allocation of any river in Alberta.

  • The oil and gas industry throughout the province as a whole has been licensed to use just over 7 per cent of the water allocated in the province, while agriculture has been licensed to use about 45 per cent. About 30 per cent is for commercial uses, and about 11 per cent is licensed to municipalities.
  • The oil sands industry has typically used less than half of its total allocation for all existing, approved and announced projects. That is less than 1 per cent of the average annual flow of the Athabasca River.
  • The total annual allocation of water from the Athabasca River for all uses, including agricultural and municipal uses, is less than 3.2 per cent of flow, compared to:
    • 37 per cent North Saskatchewan River (Edmonton)
    • 60 per cent Oldman River (Southern Alberta)
    • 65 per cent Bow River (Calgary)
  • Industry’s withdrawal of water from the Athabasca River is capped during periods of low river flow.
  • The amount that is allocated changes each year and is often dependent on weather and other factors.

Fact: Water quality in the region is monitored to ensure bodies are safe and healthy.

  • The Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program (RAMP) has been studying the health of fish populations and their habitat as well as water quality of rivers and lakes in the region for more than 10 years.
  • RAMP has concluded that there has been no significant impact from oil sands development on the Athabasca River.
  • RAMP’s information and technical reports may be reviewed on their web site

Fact: Operators in the oil sands work with many groups involved in monitoring and regulating the environmental performance and commitment of companies.

  • Alberta Environment regulates operations that impact air, land and water.
  • Alberta Sustainable Resource Development oversees access to land, timber harvest and wildlife management.
  • The ERCB undertakes public interest tests with respect to access to the hydrocarbon resource.
  • Best Available Technology Economically Achievable (BATEA) is required in new facilities.
  • Alberta Environment and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans have developed a water management plan for the lower Athabasca River.
  • The Wood Buffalo Environmental Association (WBEA) has been monitoring air quality in the region since 1997.
  • The Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP) is the multiparty environmental monitoring program that assesses the health of rivers and lakes in the region.
  • The Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA) studies the cumulative environmental effects of industrial development in the region. The group has produced hundreds of reports and guidelines and has developed eight management frameworks.

Facts sourced by Oil Sands Developers Group (October 2009).

Sources for all facts available upon request.

Did you know...

Canada’s oil reserves are second in the world behind Saudi Arabia

Of 179 billion barrels of Canada’s oil reserves, the oil sands represent 97 per cent

For each permanent oil sands-related job, nine additional direct, indirect and induced jobs are created in Canada.

Currently 240,000 jobs in Canada are directly or indirectly linked to the oil sands.

Between 2000 and 2020, oil sands development has the potential to generate at least $123 billion in royalty and tax revenues for Canada’s federal and provincial governments.

The oil sands currently account for only 4.6 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. This is less than 0.1 per cent of total global emissions.

Alberta was the first jurisdiction in North America to legislate industrial greenhouse gas emission reductions.

Producers have made great strides in reducing the amount of emissions per barrel of bitumen extracted from the oil sands. The equivalent of 2.6 million tonnes of reductions have been made – the same as taking more than 550,000 cars off the road.

The province of Alberta has committed $4 billion toward climate change initiatives, including $2 billion for public transit and $2 billion for carbon capture and storage (CCS). This is the largest CCS investment in the world.

Air quality around oil sands operations is better than all North American cities reviewed by the Alberta Clean Air Strategic Alliance.

Alberta air quality standards are the most stringent in Canada.

Air quality in Fort McMurray is monitored around the clock. Results are available at the WBEA site.

Air quality has been extensively modeled and demonstrated to remain within Alberta’s strict air quality guidelines even with all projected oil sands development in place.

Oil sands are located below the surface of 140,200 square kilometres of land, 4.5 per cent of Canada’s total boreal forest.

Mineable oil sands only exist under 0.1 per cent of Canada’s total boreal forest.

While disturbance is occurring daily, in more than 40 years oil sands mining has disturbed about one hundredth of one per cent of the Canadian boreal forest – some 500 square kilometres.

Since 2001, coordinated efforts between government and industry through Integrated Landscape Management (ILM) activities have reduced land surface disturbance in the region by 20 per cent.

As required by law, and included in all project approvals, reclamation work is ongoing and continuous in the oil sands. All lands disturbed by oil sands will be reclaimed.

Mining is only an option for oil sands that sit less than 75 metres under the surface.

More than 80 per cent of the oil sands will be developed using in-situ technologies.

In-situ projects resemble conventional oil development and do not require tailings ponds, or mine pits.

In-situ operations create linear disturbance of the surface for wellheads. But new technology and processes, including low-impact seismic and directional drilling, are reducing that footprint.

In Alberta, Alberta Environment regulates oil and gas industry water use under the Water Act. Oil and gas companies are subject to the same conditions for use as any other licensed water user in Alberta.

Currently, the oil sands industry draws less than half the water allocation allowed by Alberta Environment from the Athabasca River.

Water allocations are strictly controlled during low flow periods.

More than 80 per cent of water drawn by industry from the Athabasca is recycled.

Non-potable water which is unsuitable for drinking, livestock or irrigation use is used wherever possible for in-situ production.

Alberta Environment prohibits the release of any water to the Athabasca River that does not meet water quality requirements.

RAMP, a multi-stakeholder body, conducts annual monitoring of the river’s fish species, fish habitat and water quality. The monitoring has not detected significant changes to the Athabasca River.

Bitumen from exposed oil sands along the river banks has seeped naturally into the Athabasca River as it cut its way through the landscape.

Tailings contain the water, residual bitumen, sand and clay that is left over when the bitumen is separated from the sand.

In the ponds, the solids separate from the water so the water may be recycled into the process again. Of the total water used by oil sands mines, 80 per cent is recycled.

During and after mining, the tailings ponds are reclaimed. No tailings water is released to the Athabasca River or any other watercourse.

The first tailings ponds will be reclaimed in 2010.

80 per cent of the oil sands resource will be developed using in-situ technology which does not require tailings ponds.

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