In the wake of increasing applications for commercial developments of oil sands projects, the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board (the “ERCB”) has announced that it is taking steps to accelerate project approvals and update its rules regarding how oil sands projects tailings, subsurface reservoirs, water and wellbores are managed.

Speaking at the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers environmental issues seminar on November 14, 2012, Terry Abel, executive manager of the ERCB’s oil sands and coal division, stated that applications for commercial developments of oil sands projects have tripled in the last three years. This outcome has resulted in long lead times to receiving project approvals and demonstrated that existing guidelines need updating. The current lead times have been attributed to a lack of clarity in what companies need to include in an application. As a result, the ERCB intends to update Directive 23 (Guidelines Respecting an Application for a Commercial Crude Bitumen Recovery and Upgrading Project) to provide a clear and concise directive that is current with today’s requirements to ultimately reduce Supplemental Information Requests from the ERCB.

Mr. Abel further stated that the ERCB intends to update a number of regulatory instruments in the near future. Notably, the ERCB is re-examining its description of what constitutes an experimental project, Directive 51 which sets out the design of wellbores including thermal wells, Directive 20 which sets out the rules for how wells are abandoned in areas that could be influenced by future thermal development and it is also considering the addition of a regulatory requirement regarding reservoir containment. Of particular significance, Mr. Abel stated that ERCB intends to re-evaluate the requirements for in situ projects’ water use as these requirements date back 25 years when most make-up water was from fresh sources, whereas now much of it is saline water. In a recent move indicative of the ERCB’s commitment to change in this area, the intended water management requirement changes were implement by way of Directive 81 (Water Disposal Limits and Reporting Requirements for Thermal In Situ Oil Sands Schemes) effective November 21, 2012. The ERCB plans to begin consultation with industry members with respect to the remaining regulatory modifications in the near future and hopes to implement changes next year.