Campus Life

Maintaining a delicate balance

To some, the concept of environmentally sustainable economic development of the Alberta oil sands is a paradox, but to Shannon Flint (BMgt '07), executive director of the Strategic Policy and Innovation Branch with the Oil Sands Environmental Management Division of Alberta Environment, it is a responsibility.

Located in three major deposits in northern Alberta, the oil sands generate nearly 50 per cent of Canadian oil. They also generate controversy. Those who oppose the recent increase in development voice concern about greenhouse gas emissions, pollution of fresh water supplies, deforestation and danger to wildlife.

Shannon Flint (BMgt '07) works to sustain the environment while simultaneously developing the Alberta oil sands.

"Some of the biggest opposition and criticism we face is from international agencies like the Sierra Legal Defence Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council. We are accused of a free-for-all," Flint says.

While Flint acknowledges that development certainly has an environmental impact, she is adamant that good environmental practices take place up north. As director, she creates policies and management frameworks that support environmentally sustainable development of the oil sands to mitigate the ecological impacts of this development.

"In July 2007, we implemented Specified Gas Emitters Regulation which require oil sands plants to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. We do a lot of air, water and land monitoring and have a very active reclamation program," Flint explains.

Although water usage plays an integral part in the development of oil sands, protecting Alberta's water supply is of paramount importance.

"We have rigorous standards in place for water quantity and quality. We take thousands of water samples per year, both down and upstream of the development, and we monitor groundwater as well," she says. "There is a lot of water tied up in tailings ponds that is re-used back in the operation, but we are looking at technology that will reduce tailings and let us start reclaiming these ponds."

Flint is particularly proud of the Athabasca River Water Management Framework. The framework places strict limitations on company water usage and is based on the highest level of protection for the aquatic ecosystem afforded to any major river in Canada.

"We are managing our water differently than we have in the past," says Flint. "We need to make sure oil sands development is sustainable and generate policies that look at what we have today and what we will have in the future."