The AER has almost 100 staff members in Calgary and Fort McMurray who work on oil sands regulation, including engineers, geologists, and environmental scientists. In addition, the AER has inspectors who are in the field every day conducting surveillance activities and taking action on noncompliance.
Before companies can begin construction on a project; they must apply to the AER for approval. Even before that application is filed, however, companies must appropriately consult stakeholders to ensure that affected parties have an opportunity to understand how the project might affect them. The consultation process is extensive and companies must demonstrate that they have made every effort to address outstanding concerns. In situations where unresolved issues or conflicts exist, stakeholders may file a statement of concern to the project application with the AER, which might ultimately lead to a hearing.
Project applications are comprehensive. Environmental impact assessments are required by Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD) for all new oil sands mines and any commercial in situ project or bitumen processing plant producing more than 2000 cubic metres of crude bitumen or its derivatives per day (about 12 500 bbl per day).
The AER conducts a technical review of the application and asks questions—called supplemental information requests (SIRs)—to elicit additional information needed to address experts’ questions and issues. There can be several rounds of SIRs, particularly for complicated applications. Through the course of SIRs, companies often change their plans resulting in an improved final project that meets regulatory requirements.
Anyone who might be directly and adversely affected by a proposed project has a right to be heard and to bring forward evidence to AER decision-makers, who will decide to conduct a hearing. On contentious projects, a formal, transparent hearing by a panel of AER commissioners might be needed.
Some applications for oil sands mining developments result in a joint federal and provincial review. These reviews are triggered when an application to the AER also requires an environmental assessment by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.
To help ensure a more level playing field for all stakeholders, intervener funding might be available to cover relevant costs incurred by participants in our hearing process.
A hearing results in a formal decision document by the AER or joint federal and provincial review panel, which might set out additional conditions that must be met to address the unique impacts of the particular project.
An AER approval can be revoked if an operator does not follow rules and approval conditions throughout the construction and ongoing operation of a project.
Once a project is approved; it must meet strict rules and regulations during construction and operation. In 2012, the AER conducted about 85 mine site inspections, each of which can take up to a week. Mine sites are complicated operations that often require different areas of expertise to properly assess; professional engineers and environmental scientists often inspect as a team.
In addition, the AER conducted a total of over 3000 inspections of component parts within in situ facilities last year.
Industry compliance across Alberta with major AER regulations is over 95 per cent.
Transparency is important. Every high-risk compliance violation and AER enforcement action is listed in ST 108: ERCB Monthly Enforcement Action Summary.
When companies do not meet our stringent regulatory requirements, we take action. In 2011, the AER shut down 59 facilities across the province when a company did not meet regulatory requirements and the noncompliance led to an unacceptable impact to the environment, public safety, or resource conservation.
Shutting down a facility is effective because it immediately mitigates the negative impact of the noncompliance and it has an economic impact on the company. The operator is allowed to recommence operations once the noncompliance is addressed and the AER is satisfied that it will not happen again, at that or any other of the operator’s similar facilities in the province.
Another compliance action is placing a company on what is called “global refer.” This enforcement status results in every application—no matter how minor - to receive the highest level of regulatory scrutiny. This slows down the regulatory process significantly and can even result in applications being held in abeyance.
With oil sands investment in Alberta at a level of many billions of dollars every year, the cumulative impacts of industrial activity must be managed to ensure that the environment is protected to the high standard that Albertans expect.
Through regional planning, as well as other initiatives, Alberta is shifting to a more effective and efficient management system that considers the cumulative effects of all activities and improves integration across the economic, environmental and social pillars. The Alberta government is committed to manage the cumulative effects of development on air, water, land and biodiversity at the regional level.