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In Alberta, legislation, plans, frameworks, and directives guide tailings management to supporting oil sands development while protecting the environment. Furthermore, the AER conducts compliance monitoring throughout the development life cycle of an oil sands mine to ensure tailings production and management go as planned.

Guiding Documents

The Government of Alberta established the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan (LARP) under the Land Use Framework. Released in 2012 as the first regional plan, LARP is a comprehensive, forward-thinking, and legally binding road map that enhances the Alberta government’s approach to environmental management, addresses growth pressures and supports economic development. LARP directed the completion of the Lower Athabasca Region: Tailings Management Framework for the Mineable Athabasca Oil Sands (TMF) in 2015 to support effective tailings management.

The TMF is designed to monitor and manage long-term fluid tailings growth and land reclamation in the Lower Athabasca region and 

  • provides policy direction to help manage tailings volumes,
  • describes a holistic approach for timely and progressive reclamation, 
  • provides objectives on how to manage existing and new fluid tailings,
  • aims to reduce fluid tailings accumulation,
  • promotes innovation among industry, the AER, and the Alberta government to ensure that fluid tailings are appropriately managed, treated, and reclaimed, and
  • requires companies to increase their monitoring and reporting on tailings.

The TMF does not focus on other issues related to tailings, like dam safety or bird safety. However, the AER has other requirements to protect wildlife. Every oil sands mining operator must submit and follow a wildlife plan to prevent harm to wildlife.

The TMF is the foundation for AER’s Directive 085: Fluid Tailings Management for Oil Sands Mining Projects. Directive 085 sets out requirements for managing tailings volumes, including

  • application information requirements,
  • the application review process, 
  • tailings management reporting, and 
  • the performance evaluation and compliance and enforcement processes. 

The TMF also provides a system of management levels for fluid tailings. The system, summarized below, ensures that tailings do not grow to the point where an operator cannot process and remove them from the landscape within the designated timeframe. Directive 085 includes descriptions of the management levels defined by the TMF and the potential management actions that the AER may implement to ensure fluid tailings volumes remain aligned with approved operating conditions.

  • Level 1: The project is operating in line with its approved tailings profile.
  • Level 2: Conditions indicate an increasing level of risk associated with an increasing volume of fluid tailings at a project, beyond that which was approved.
  • Level 3: The volume of tailings has exceeded the volume that would be possible to get ready to reclaim within ten years of the end of the mine’s life.
  • Level 4: The total volume limit of fluid tailings for the project has been exceeded.


There are eight active oil sands mining operations in Alberta. All operators are committed to progressive reclamation and report annually on the volumes of their fluid tailings. The entire mining and tailings areas will be reclaimed when mining has finished. 

Reclamation of Alberta’s oil sands tailings is a progressive, ongoing process. Tailings ponds have a long life span and reclamation timeline. However, under the TMF, all tailings must be ready to reclaim within ten years of mine closure.

What is "ready to reclaim"?

“Ready to reclaim” means that tailings are in their final location, treated with an acceptable technology, and meet the ready-to-reclaim criteria set out in the TMF and Directive 085

Once tailings have reached ready-to-reclaim status, tailings deposits must undergo further activities that include the placement of reclamation material and revegetation. These activities are regulated under the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act (EPEA).

Tailings Process

Under EPEA, operators are responsible for suspension, abandonment, remediation, and surface reclamation work to the standards established by the Government of Alberta and maintain the care and custody of the land until a reclamation certificate has been issued and the land returned to the Crown. The financial burden of these requirements remains with the operators.

Tailings Management Plans

Under Directive 085, operators must submit tailings management plans (TMPs) demonstrating to the AER how they will meet the thresholds for tailings accumulation. The AER will review approved TMPs every five years or as necessary throughout a mine’s life. This review will ensure the profiles and thresholds align with the projections and reflect current technology, knowledge, and continuous improvement. 

TMPs must be submitted through an application process outlined in Directive 085 and the AER’s Oil Sands Mining Authorizations webpage. A multidisciplinary team of AER technical experts will review the TMPs. The AER has approved TMPs for each oil sands mine, which lists the actions companies will take over the next several decades to meet this objective. These approvals are on the Tailings Notices and Decisions webpage.

Annual Fluid Tailings Reporting

Section 6.2 of Directive 085 requires operators to “submit annual fluid tailings management reports to the AER by April 30 for the previous year’s performance.” 

Operators must submit a summary of fluid tailings management activities during the reporting period, including fluid tailings treatment and placement operations (showing alignment with the reclamation plan), technology development, and contingency or mitigation actions initiated in response to fluid tailings volume profile deviations or threshold exceedance, if any.

AER technical staff undertake an administrative review to ensure the reports submitted comply with the reporting requirements in Directive 085. Incomplete reports are returned to the operator for additional work. Once deemed administratively complete, the reports are published on the AER website no later than May 30 each year. 

At the end of October each year, the AER publishes an annual State of Fluid Tailings Management for Mineable Oil Sands report, as required by the TMF. Reports from previous years are available on the Product Catalogue webpage.

AER technical staff prepare the annual state of fluid tailings report after reviewing each operator’s report in detail to ensure that the tailings management activities of the reporting period align with all approvals and actual field performance and activities. The AER’s report also identifies any regulatory actions taken, evaluates regional performance against the framework’s outcomes and objectives, and identifies operators performing well and those needing to improve.

Key issues flagged as part of the review are for field inspection. The AER inspects tailings facilities on a scheduled basis multiple times yearly and by incident-based inspections, investigations, or audits.

Inspections, Audits and Investigations

The AER inspects and audits operators to ensure rules, requirements, and regulations are being followed, ensuring public safety and environmental protection. Inspections can be proactive (e.g., for processing plants, tailings, dam safety, and reclamation) or reactive (releases, public complaints, and incident notifications).

Verification activities (e.g., inspections, audits, and investigations) may require compliance or enforcement using tools such as a notice of noncompliance, an order, an administrative sanction, or an administrative penalty.

Inspection and audit findings can lead to a notice of noncompliance that can be triaged to an investigation. The goal of an investigation is to systematically collect information and evidence to determine the facts relevant to noncompliance.

Tailings deposit inspections and desktop surveillance (data review and analysis by AER experts) are carried out to ensure rules, regulations, and requirements are being followed.

Compliance and Enforcement

The AER has full authority to enforce our tailings requirements under the Oil Sands Conservation Act, Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, Water Act, and Public Lands Act. Companies that do not follow our requirements will face consequences. We will share our enforcement and compliance actions on the Compliance Dashboard. Some of our compliance and enforcement tools include

  • more frequent and detailed inspections,
  • more stringent planning requirements,
  • more frequent reporting,
  • enforcement orders,
  • shut down of operations,
  • financial penalties, and
  • prosecution.

The TMF introduced regulatory financial tools under the Mine Financial Security Program and a compliance levy. The Government of Alberta and the AER use the program to responsibly balance protecting Albertans from closure costs of oil sands mines and maximizing the industry’s opportunities for responsible and sustainable resource development. Security deposits are required before development and during the mining operation life cycle.