Environment Minister Kyle Fawcett says operators will have clear guidelines on how large tailings ponds will be allowed to grow. The rules will be backed up by possible financial penalties, he said.
The combination of oversight and enforcement will force companies to keep pushing for a technological breakthrough on tailings cleanup that has so far remained elusive, Fawcett suggested.
"Technology unlocked the oilsands," he said. "It will be key to finding the long-term, effective solutions to tailings ponds management."
About 220 square kilometres of tailings — a toxic mix of water, silt, leftover bitumen and solvents — have long been one of the industry's toughest environmental challenges. Separating water from the contaminants on a big enough scale remains difficult.
Friday's framework replaces an attempt in 2009 to force industry to clean up the ponds, but operators were unable to meet deadlines.
Fawcett said the new regulations won't meet the same fate.
"I sat down with all of the CEOs on minable oilsands companies and looked them eyeball to eyeball and asked them if they are comfortable with this framework. They told me yes."
The allowable size of waste-water ponds will be determined for each project by the Alberta Energy Regulator, although all will be required to have no more than five years of accumulated tailings at the end of a mine's life. The regulator will also be responsible for developing details on enforcement and penalties.
That's a huge hole in Friday's announcement, especially since tailings cleanup is expensive, said Erin Flanagan of the Pembina Institute, a clean energy think-tank.
"We know companies will choose the lowest-cost form of compliance, whether that's paying a fee or whether that's adopting a new form of technology," she said.
"We have to make sure that it's more expensive to break the rules than it is to comply with the rules, and we have no clarity on whether or not that's going to be true."
Meanwhile, said Flanagan, industry is operating in a vacuum, since previous tailings pond rules were suspended with Friday's announcement.
Cara Tobin of the Alberta Energy Regulator said the agency has no timeline yet for developing details.
"We need to review the (framework) to determine what the implications are and what we need to do to implement the policy," she said in an email.
The government also released new rules for oilsands operators on the use of water from the Athabasca River.
The average total allowable amount is to be cut nearly in half. No withdrawals will be allowed during low-flow periods, except for older mines. The government says the guidelines will preserve the river's ecosystem and still allow for aboriginal water use.
The province has previously been harshly criticized for relying too much on computer modelling of river levels and not enough on in-the-field science of what is actually needed for a healthy river.
Flanagan said all water withdrawals should be stopped when the river is too low — with no exceptions.
The tailings pond and Athabasca River guidelines are part of the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan, which is being challenged in court by area First Nations.
Fawcett would not comment on what might happen to the plan if the challenge is successful.