Environment

Reclamation illusions in oil sands country

Lack of legislation, financial preparedness, undermine reclamation efforts

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After more than 40 years of scraping away swathes of trees, muskeg, and soil in northeastern Alberta to get at the tarry black gold underneath, Alberta's first oil sands reclamation certificate was finally issued in March to great applause. Roughly 1 km2 of land (104 ha), Syncrude’s Gateway Hill, was declared “reclaimed” by the Government of Alberta.

But there are many reasons to mute the trumpets. First, this certificate represents a miniscule 0.2 per cent of the land disturbed for oil sands mining – almost 480 km2 as of 2006. Second, the reclaimed area was a dumping ground for "overburden," earth removed to get at the ore beneath; reclaiming tailings ponds will present a much greater—and perhaps insurmountable—challenge. And third, reclamation does not mean restoration. Syncrude’s reclaimed site bears little resemblance to the original boreal forest ecosystem.

A complex of forests and low-lying wetlands has been transformed into a dry, hilly upland with new trails for human use. Syncrude spokesperson Alain Moore's statement about the site, given after the certificate was granted, speaks volumes: "If people aren’t looking closely, it blends into the natural landscape." Is that enough? Or do we expect those who have exploited the land to restore it to its pre-disturbance state?

In the interest of "looking closely," let's start with the legal meaning of reclamation—what exactly do oil sands companies have to do to qualify for a reclamation certificate?

According to Alberta’s Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act (EPEA) regulations, the objective of land reclamation is to return the land to "an equivalent land capability," which means that "the ability of the land to support various land uses after conservation and reclamation is similar to the ability that existed prior to an activity being conducted on the land, but that the individual land uses will not necessarily be identical" (emphasis added). Th e vagueness of the language here is troubling, as is the absence of binding reclamation timelines in EPEA approvals.

"It won’t be identical to what was there before,” says Kem Singh, Alberta Environment’s regional approvals manager for the Northern Region. In fact, knowledge of "what was there before" is in many cases fragmentary and is largely industry-based. "We rely on companies themselves for the benchmark data." According to Singh, Alberta Environment's reclamation goal is "a kind of capability that allows for various land uses, determined on a regional basis." One of the documents guiding the reclamation process, Guidelines for Reclamation to Forest Vegetation in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region, identifies the two primary land use objectives for reclamation as "the establishment of stands of commercial forest and the establishment of wildlife habitat."

Another primary guiding document, Land Capability Classification for Forest Ecosystems in the Oil Sands (LCCS), clarifies which of these objectives takes priority. According to the May 2008 Pembina Institute report Fact or Fiction: Oil Sands Reclamation, "The LCCS indirectly implies that economic or productivity factors dictate the reclaimed target landscape - a forested ecosystem. Using the LCCS land and soil categories diminishes the value of wetlands and leads to a perverse situation where oil sands proponents claim there will be an improvement in land capability after reclamation."

In the case of wetlands such as the McClelland Lake patterned fen, approved in 2002 for oil sands mining by Petro-Canada’s Fort Hills Oil Sands Project, the phrase "equivalent land capability" may have to be stretched to the point of near meaninglessness. Virtually everyone agrees that no one knows how to reclaim this ecosystem to anything resembling what it is now—a rare peatland 8,000 years in the making and hydrologically connected to a number of other wetland types through both surface and groundwater.

In a 2004 report, the National Energy Board stated, "Re-establishment of self-sustaining ecosystems is a major challenge in the reclamation of land disturbed by oil sands mining operations." For us to assume that those in charge know how to reclaim natural landscapes even to an "equivalent capability" is naïve in the extreme, especially with respect to peat-based wetlands. In Alberta, we seem to be turning the precautionary principle on its head. The government-industry post-cautionary principle appears to be "Lack of full scientific certainty shall not get in the way of profit" or "Dig now, worry about environmental consequences later."

In its application for the Horizon project, Canadian Natural Resources made this statement: "Mitigation paired with reclamation assumes a post-project success rate of 100 per cent... Uncertainty with reclamation methods is assumed to be resolved with ongoing reclamation monitoring and research." This faith-based "winging it" approach to reclamation appears to satisfy the government departments responsible for project approvals.

"Amazingly, the EUB and the departments of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development accept this approach to addressing uncertainty," said Dan Woynillowicz, a senior policy analyst with the Pembina Institute, in his September 2006 presentation to the Oil Sands Multi-stakeholder Committee in Fort McMurray. "This uncertainty also has potential economic ramifi cations for Albertans."


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