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Testing Transboundary Cooperation

Michael Miltenberger   |   February 2020


Photo: Government of Alberta

A true test of transboundary water cooperation is imminent in the north. Recently elected governments in the Northwest Territories, Alberta, and Canada will be closely watched as they try to figure what to do with approximately 1.3 trillion litres of liquid tailings from the oil sands. The tailings – a mixture of sand, silt, clay, and residual bitumen and solvents – are currently sitting in ponds covering 220 square kilometres in northeastern Alberta. In May 2019, Canada and Alberta began working on regulatory changes that would allow discharge of treated effluent into the Athabasca River, despite the fact that there is currently no effective way of purifying and decontaminating that tailings before they are released. Residents of the Northwest Territories, downstream of the Athabasca, are looking south apprehensively.


The question remains how, if at all, these three governments will work together on this immense challenge. The Alberta-NWT Mackenzie River Basin Bilateral Water Management Agreement (MRB Agreement), signed in 2015, provides an ideal platform for cooperation, although it is not clear whether the release of tailings has been discussed under this Agreement. Undoubtedly it should. The Athabasca itself does not cross the Alberta-NWT border, but it is an important waterway within the expansive Mackenzie River Basin. Its waters flow north from Jasper National Park, joining other waterways before ending up in Great Slave Lake and eventually the Arctic Ocean. Yet the Athabasca River is also threatened, impacted by decades of nearby oil sands and hydroelectric development. The release of toxic tailings may expand the downstream reach of these impacts, compromising the ecological integrity of the Slave and Mackenzie Rivers and threatening the livelihoods of communities along those rivers.


Despite the clear risk, Canada and Alberta appear committed to this pathway and are aiming to have regulatory changes in place by 2022. The NWT, as the major downstream jurisdiction, must play a prominent role in these discussions moving forward. The MRB Agreement commits Alberta and the NWT to working together on development and activities that may impact ecological integrity. The release of tailings clearly fits this description. As demonstrated in the recent NWT election, climate change and concerns about water are front and centre in people’s minds. The MRB Agreement is the mechanism through which the NWT government can assert these concerns.

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