The insane regression of the EIA process for in situ oil sand projects in Alberta

Oil sands industry in Alberta is an extensive and intensive development which is economically primordial for Canada but it has damaging impacts on the surrounding environment. Therefore, to regulate and mitigate these impacts, oil sand projects are subjected to environmental impact assessments.


Location of Alberta’Tar sands

Source:  Alberta Geological Survey

Prior to October 2013, projects of in situ oil sand extraction were subjected to both federal and provincial EIA but now, only provincial EIA remains. The federal government claims that they made this decision because they wanted to concentrate their effort towards “major projects that have the greatest potential to generate negative environmental impacts under federal jurisdiction, such as impacts on waterways, and other projects would not be “unduly burdened” with extra work” (CBC news, 2013). They further argue that this type of project has less negative impact on the environment. But are the government actors really aware of the reality? Because if they are, they would know that these projects are especially responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, habitat fragmentation and water pollution. And there are still leaks and accidents related to oil sands projects, such as the one polluting the Cold Lake in northeast Alberta in 2013. So, the truth is that these projects have tremendous impacts on the surrounding environment and federal EIAs will be a great help, as a complement to a provincial EIA, to better identify and assess their environmental impacts. But the government and decision-makers don’t seem to have the same opinion…

Yet, there were some previous cases where federal and provincial EIA didn’t get to the same conclusion, as for the case of the project of Taseko Gold-Copper Mine at Fish Lake in British Columbia. First, as the organization Ecojustice explains in 2012, this project was approved by the provincial government but then a federal EIA was conducted and experts found that this project would adversely impact fish habitat and First Nations in particular and therefore the federal government rejected it.

Federal EIA is primordial and necessary for projects such as in situ oil sand extraction, as the leader of the New Democratic Party, Thomas                                                                                 Mulcair, explains in this video:


In addition, a report released in 2013 by two environmental groups shows that about 4,000 violations of environmental laws committed by oil sands projects since 1996 were not punished by the government of Alberta. According to Global News (2013), it means that “Alberta’s enforcing fewer than one per cent of potential violations in its oilsands region”, which is outrageous and inconceivable considering the environmental impacts that these projects have.  Moreover, Thomas Muclair argues that even the Alberta’s Environmental Department focus its effort to hush the critics towards oil sand projects by preventing environmental groups to assist at reviews and public participation concerning oil sand operations. Therefore, I really doubt that the true intentions of the government of Alberta are to protect the environment and the ecosystems from in situ oil sand projects. Until last year, the federal government could interfere and conduct their own EIA for projects of in situ oil sand extraction, to detect any problems or failures in the provincial EIA process, and possibly fix them. But the fact that this type of project had been removed from the list of projects requiring a federal EIA is completely absurd, because now the environmental protection against oil sand projects in Alberta only depends on the provincial government. Thus, it is concerning news for the well-being and the future of Alberta’s ecosystems, and a sign that the environmental protection is regressing in Alberta.



CBC news. (2013). New environmental review rules anger oilsands critics.


Ecojustice. (2012). Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.



Global News. (2013). Alberta enforcing fewer than one per cent of oilsands environmental violations: Report. Montreal.



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