NAFTA compounds 1.2 trillion litres of toxic petrochemical waste in tar sands tailings ponds

The Council of Canadians campaigns against the proposed Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain and TransCanada Energy East pipelines, as well as numerous other controversial tar sands pipelines. The 1.1 million barrel per day Energy East pipeline alone would enable a 39 per cent increase in tar sands production from 2012 levels.

Pro-tar sands groups try to spin the numbers in terms of downplaying the impact of this on water. While the calculations can vary, even the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers admits that it takes about 3.1 barrels of fresh water to extract 1 barrel of oil from the tar sands, while the Alberta Energy Regulator claims companies recycle 80 to 95 per cent of the water they use.

But DeSmog Canada now reports, "The future of Alberta’s sprawling tailings ponds is in serious crisis. As of right now, there is no clear understanding if or how oilsands companies are going to clean up the 1.2 trillion litres of toxic petrochemical waste covering over 220 square kilometres in the province’s northeast."

That article adds, "On [June 26], Environmental Defence and the U.S.’s Natural Resources Defense Council published a report that pegged potential costs for cleanup and reclamation at a staggering $51.3 billion: $44.5 billion for cleanup, with an additional $6.8 billion for rehabilitation and monitoring. That amount exceeds the $41.3 billion in royalties collected by the province of Alberta between 1970 and 2016."

Despite this reality, Conservative and Liberal governments (federally) and the NDP (provincially) have sought to expand the tar sands.

During the talks for the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), the Harper government pushed hard to derail the European Fuel Quality Directive that would have served to limit tar sands exports to Europe. Now, there is speculation that Europe could import up to 725,000 barrels a day from the tar sands by 2020 (up from 4,000 barrels a day in 2012).

Last month, Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr spent five days on a trade mission in China seeking to expand Chinese investment in the tar sands in relation to the ongoing free trade talks with that country.

And with the renegotiation of NAFTA set to start next month, we should remember the implications of its energy proportionality provision and its relationship to the destruction of water.

In 2007, a study by University of Toronto professors Joseph Cumming and Robert Froehlich argued that US-owned water-intensive oil companies operating in the tar sands could sue Canada under NAFTA Chapter 11 for hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation for lost profits should restrictions be placed on their water use.

Maude Barlow has commented, "If the government of Alberta were to ever limit the current water access of the energy companies operating in the tar sands, transnational corporations could sue for huge sums of compensation from the government of Canada. Cumming and Froehlich warn that cancelling or limiting water licenses would be seen as a form of trade-illegal expropriation, costing the Canadian taxpayer potentially billions of dollars. Equally worrisome, they say, is the threat of such compensation might prevent the Alberta government from taking such a step in the first place, allowing energy corporations to dictate Canadian policy."

The protection of water from this agenda should be at the forefront of NAFTA negotiations next month.