August 7, 2014 1:47 pm

2 provinces, 2 environmental disasters, 2 very different responses

An aerial view shows the damage caused by a tailings pond breach near the town of Likely, B.C. Tuesday, August, 5, 2014.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

A quartet of spills in northern Alberta has been oozing bitumen emulsion for more than a year with no sign of stopping, and the provincial regulator’s latest report finds the oil company’s own extraction method could be partly to blame.

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A massive tailings pond breach sends a wall of potentially toxic mine waste flooding through central British Columbia.

Which garners more outrage?

The second one – by a long shot.

Mount Polley mine‘s tailings pond breach in B.C. has sparked a state of emergency as residents’ tap water is deemed unusable and provincial authorities scramble to determine just how toxic the spilled wastewater is, where the sludge went and what’s in the suspended solids.

Mine owner Imperial Metals has seen its share prices tank about 40 per centin the days following the breach.

Canadian Natural Resources Limited, on the other hand, has been barely bruised by the months-long series of spills at its Cold Lake site, even after an Alberta Energy Regulator report concluded the company’s high-pressure steaming is just too much for the rock, causing it to fracture and leak bitumen.

That conclusion’s a big deal, said Dinara Millington, vice-president of research with the Canadian Energy Research Institute: It suggests the operation itself is unsound, and has implications beyond these four spills, or even CNRL’s operations in that area.

“The regulator has been called by the public and Pembina Institute and other environmental institutes to  undertake a study where they would be looking at [cyclical steam stimulation] in general, and whether it’s even appropriate in a place where CNRL is,” she said.

“It will set a huge precedent for anyone who wants to get into that area.”

But shareholders don’t seem concerned: CNRL’s share price sits at about $44 now, compared to $31 a year ago.

And the public outcry in the days following B.C.’s tailings spill so far exceeds any outrage connected to Alberta’s ongoing bitumen spills.

Calgary billionaire Murray Edwards is Imperial’s controlling shareholder, as well as CNRL’s chairman and founder.

Why the divergent responses?

From a shareholder perspective, it could be a simple evaluation of risk, Millington said.

“CNRL, as a company, has large reserves, large assets large capital invested into various projects …  they could, for example, if the regulator says to walk away from the [Cold Lake] project, they have options.”

The sharply different reaction for Imperial Metals, she said, “Is directly related back to the concept of social licence: whether the company has that social licence, whether they’ve been able to obtain it and retain it. … You need to continue with what you said you were going to do, which is being the environmental steward of the land that you’re occupying. “

And the intimation from both the B.C. government and former employees that there were problems with the tailings site that should have been addressed earlier likely doesn’t inspire confidence, she said.

The tailings breach also has a more immediate and more visible human impact than the months of bitumen seeping from what is, effectively, a weapons range that’s a fair distance from even more remote First Nations communities.

But that just makes its effects more insidious, she said.

“We don’t know what the long-lasting impact can be – the emulsion can be seeping into the underground water resources or reaching small lakes and rivers and streams.”

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