Is Reclamation Possible for the Oil Sands?
Is Reclamation Possible for the Oil Sands?
Oil and natural gas companies are required by provincial regulations to return lands they disturb to a self-sustaining natural state as close as reasonable to its original condition. The fact that some highly disturbed ecosystems following oil sands mining have been carefully rehabilitated and “certified reclaimed” suggests that successful land reclamation is possible.
Alberta’s oil sands lie under 142,000 km2 of land. Only about 3%, or 4,800 km2, of that land could ever be impacted by the mining method of extracting oil sands. The remaining reserves that underlie 97 per cent of the oil sands surface area are recoverable by drilling (in situ) methods which require very little surface land disturbance. Reliable, long-term environmental monitoring based on sound science is in everybody’s best interests. Approvals from numerous regulatory agencies are required at every phase, from construction and operation to decommissioning and reclamation.
Fortunately, the impact on Canada’s Boreal Forest by oil sands development has been relatively small. According to Alberta Environment, only 0.2 percent of the forest has been disturbed by oil sands mining operations over the past 40 years, and the active oil sands mining footprint is just 715 square kilometres. CAPP and the industry are active participants in regional land use planning. Source: Alberta Environment & Parks
To ensure reclamation plans get carried out, the government requires financial guarantees for each mining project. The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) regulates land reclamation, reviews applications and carries out inspections to ensure compliance with the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act (EPEA) and the Public Lands Act. Oil sands mining operators also contribute to the Mine Financial Security Program, a contingency fund held by the government for reclamation of land impacted by mines. The funds are used if operators do not carry out their reclamation plans. To date, there has never been a need to draw on this fund, so it continues to grow.
Contouring and erosion control: Disturbed surface areas are re-contoured to blend with the original landform. Adequate erosion control will provide for site stability and generally is achieved by successful revegetation.
Re-vegetation: The establishment of a self-sustaining native plant community is a benchmark of reclamation success, including the control of noxious weeds.
Reclamation certification: Following reclamation, the landscape is evaluated to ensure there are no erosion or drainage issues, topsoil quality and quantity is confirmed, and the health of vegetation is adequate. When planning their projects, producers strive to avoid sensitive habitats and protected areas. Oil sands producers take extensive efforts to minimize impact to wildlife habitat.
An Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute (ABMI) report states that the Lower Athabasca region’s living resources are 94% intact. Given the long life cycle of oil sands operations (a typical oil sands mine has a 25 to 50 year lifespan and in situ operation runs for 10 to 15 years), and because the oil sands industry is still relatively young, much of the industry’s reclamation activity is still in early stages.
Source: Alberta Environment OSIP
Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) is an alliance of oil sands producers focused on accelerating the pace of improvement in environmental performance in Canada’s oil sands through collaborative action and innovation. COSIA’s work has focused on reducing the footprint intensity and impact of oil sands mining and in situ drilling operations on the land and wildlife of northern Alberta.
Companies have invested more than $1.4 billion collectively through (COSIA) to develop new technologies to improve environmental performance.
LARP (The Lower Athabasca Regional Plan) has established new environmental frameworks to protect regional air and surface water quality and increased the amount of land set aside for conservation to more than two million hectares. The total conserved land through LARP is 3 times the size of Banff National Park.
In Alberta alone, approximately 90,000 km² of the Boreal Forest is protected from development. 90,000 km is about the size of Portugal or North Carolina. Source: CAPP 2015
All lands disturbed by oil and natural gas development are required to be returned to a self-sustaining landscape, equivalent to the pre-development state. Reclamation planning starts at the beginning of the project not at the end.
So yes, company’s such as AiM believe it is not only possible to reclaim the land used by the producers, it is absolutely mandatory for them to do so.
If you are planning a project that requires planning to avoid sensitive habitats and protected areas, optimize the area needed for mining and in situ well sites, work with other land users to reduce the disturbance footprint by sharing roads and pipelines and employ technologies to minimize emissions. AiM’s expert Reclamation and Remediation team is able to help.