Reclamation of Oil Sands: Is It Possible?

Updated on March 17, 2017

What Are the Oil Sands?

Alberta’s oil sands account for nearly 1.6 trillion barrels of oil, about 13% of the entire world’s supply. The only larger reserve of petroleum is in Saudi Arabia. To put it in perspective, in 2010, Canada supplied the United States with 1.4 million barrels of oil every single day. Despite common misconceptions, America’s leading provider of foreign oil is not from the Middle East but from our Northern neighbors.

Unlike oil reserves in Saudi Arabia, Alberta’s oil involves a more energy intensive refinement process. “Oil sands” refers to the bitumen trapped in the soil, which makes up only about 10% to 12% of the entire soil composition. Relying on two different methods of extraction, nearly half of the oil mined is expended in the process. Much of this raw bitumen is too dense or sulfuric for refinement and requires yet another round of upgrading before it can heat stoves in Chicago.

Outlined in orange are the oil sands deposits in Alberta
Outlined in orange are the oil sands deposits in Alberta

How is Oil Extracted?

Extraction relies on two differing methods: open pit and in-situ. Open pit refers to the process of stripping the old-growth forests, the vegetation, and the topsoil to remove deposits near the surface. While effective, the methodology is commonly criticized for being invasive. This process is only viable for deposits in the top 100 meters (about 110 yards) of soil. Any reserve locked deeper within the earth’s innards requires a different technique.

In-situ mining is the more common method of oil sands extraction. More than 90% of oil sand operations involve this process. Steam is pumped deep into the soil at extremely high pressures, releasing the bitumen from the sands. Beneath this onslaught of steam, a well collects the released oil and pumps the raw bitumen to the surface.

History of Oil Sands

Though the first recorded successful refinement of tar sands occurred in the mid-1920s, the world’s first large-scale operation only began in 1967. Great Canadian Oil Sands began producing nearly 32,000 barrels of oil per day (bpd). While the scale of this triumph seemed monumental at the time, this figure is minuscule in comparison to the projected 3.9 million bpd demanded by 2022.

In 1995, the National Task Force on Oil Sands Strategies expressed a demand for an increase of oil sands activity 200% (tripling). The two main players in this enormous operation include Syncrude and Suncor. (Suncor absorbed the entrepreneur, Great Canadian Oil Sands.) Over the years, these two companies have expanded to meet enormous demands, surpassing the 1 million bpd mark in the early 2000s.

Expanse of oil sands mining
Expanse of oil sands mining | Source

Environmental Concerns

Though “concerns” may be a bit underwhelming of a term in this instance, the environmental implications of this operation are, at the very least, concerning. This one mining site emits double the emissions of the entire city of Los Angeles. With roughly 3,000 square miles of disturbed land, most bear very little resemblance to the boreal forest typical of the area. Not only is the land stripped of soil (and thus nutrients), but the waste generated creates entirely new topographical anomalies with their own potential for damage.

One of the more notorious formations as a byproduct of these operations are tailings ponds. “Tailings ponds” is an oil company’s euphemism for “gigantic pool of toxic waste.” Syncrude received a huge public backlash in 2008 when over sixteen hundred ducks met a tar-coated death upon mistaking this waste reservoir for a natural lake. Of the birds affected, less than six ducks lived. Due to this, new regulations mandate cannons (in hopes the sound will scare off potential roosting) and scarecrow buoys.

A lesser-known result of mining are the pyramids of sulfur. Sulfur is just an unfortunate byproduct of the refinement process; unfortunate in the sense that modern civilization has no real use for sulfur. Without any means of selling the element, and with little research in proper disposal, gargantuan piles sit atop the graves of aspen trees.

Is Reclamation of Disturbed Land Possible?

While environmentalists spend an exhausting effort in proving the damage of oil sands mining, few pose viable reclamation solutions. While a very effective solution would be to cease all activity immediately, society’s craving for toasters and BMWs renders it an impossibility. Truly, this is not so greedy of a desire as it would seem. To the extent that humanity exploits earth’s resources, we also utilize them to create medical advancements and engineering feats that have vastly improved the quality of life and saved millions. However, consumption without restoration is a self-destructive trend.

The more cynical of scientists would claim reclamation of land after oil sands mining is an impossibility. And their outlook is not ill-founded. While operations have been in place on a large-scale since 1967, in those fifty years only one site has ever been certified reclaimed. That about a 0.1% success rate. However, it is arguable that in the history of reclamation policy, they have not been told to try very hard.

Cold Lake in northern Alberta
Cold Lake in northern Alberta

History of Reclamation Policy

Arguing the possibility of reclamation requires an understanding of past policy. New legislation that defines modern certification standards hinges on an existence of a precedent. But, unfortunately, standards of reclamation certification were never established formally until the 2007 Oil Sands Consultations Multi-Stakeholder Committee Final Report. In this report, reclamation standards were defined as a clearly self-sustaining land typical of the original boreal ecosystem.

Before the 1960s, reclamation was more of a non-policy. The government relied on the common law to enforce any obligations of stewardship on large corporations. In 1963, the Surface Reclamation Act replaced this lack of policy with a general requirement to reclaim the surface of the land. There were problems with exemptions and the reliance on common sense judgment as a form of regulation. Also, these standards were meant to encompass production of the time, which was around 32,000 bpd. By the time that reclamation policy was enhanced in thirty years later, the scope and scale of operation had long outgrown the imagination of its predecessors.

In 1993, a new-wave of policy called the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act replaces an antiquated set of regulations. It was during this time that the phrase “equivalent land capability” was first introduced.

What is "Equivalent Capability"?

Equivalent land capability was an objective introduced in the 1990s to help define what successful reclamation of oil sands mining looked like. Rather than depending on common law or common sense judgment, this definition was scientifically grounded. Despite misconceptions with the term “equivalent,” the act specifically emphasizes that restored land need only be “similar to” old land. The objective was for something comparable, not identical.

Capability” is not as ambiguous of a term as it sounds. This is in direct reference to the biochemical and physical characteristics of the land. More specifically, this involves the surface and subsurface soil characteristics, landscape factors, edaphic regimes, and predominant vegetation. Monitoring agencies run specific tests to compare numerous features of the new landscape to the original forest, from soil pH and moisture to topography and slope. While this is often misquoted as the “use” of the land, the implication of “use” does not encompass the rigorous sets of tests mandated by for reclamation certification and allows far too many fallacies. Vagueness in policy is no longer the reason that certified reclaimed land is so rare; a more likely cause is meeting this high standard of expectation.

Current Reclamation Policy Flaws

While it seems the new standard of reclamation upholds the integrity of the environment, a flaw exists in the modern definition. Though we have made enormous improvements in outlining expectations, we failed to make sure they were attainable. Hinging policies on the standards of pre-disturbance land is the greatest misunderstanding of reclamation. While standards ought to encompass the same level of viability, there is significant evidence that post-mining land can never meet this ideal.

After oil sands mining, environments are completely changed. Up to $250,000 can be spent per hectare of mined land to reconstructed features of the original forest. This involves reshaping the land with bulldozers, reintroducing top soils, and (very integrally) planting native species. However, native species may no longer flourish in this land.

For example, the trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides) is one of the most common deciduous trees in a Canadian boreal forest. After wildfires or even in certain human interferences (such as logging), the root systems of these trees are still established. Regrowth happens naturally. When mining destroys this structure, thousands of dollars are poured into forcing the trees to grow again. Unfortunately, this is not often a successful process. Aspen require a very specific moisture content in the soil, and the seeds are sensitive to the roughness of the ground. After large machinery flattens the soil or alters its moisture contents, what was once the proper species for this location may be the entirely wrong species to integrate for reclamation.

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A Possible Improvement for the Future

Though it is arguable that corporations do not spend enough money towards reclamation, the money that is being spent is towards a fruitless cause. Our greatest hope for future improvement lies in altering our perception of what “reclamation” really means. We must think of restoring the land in terms of practicality, not possibility. While restoring land to its original state is possible, this approach may not be practical. A more achievable goal is understanding that reclamation may involve returning the land to any state of vigor rather than just the prior one. Different species may be more appropriate for these environments. New land formations may not mirror the original. Considering these changes to be a failure undermines the potential for a new form of landscape to develop. Without sacrificing the standards of beauty and significance held by old-growth forests, by simply altering our focus, we can still succeed in saving this land.

To learn more, consider reading Andrew Blackwell's Visit Sunny Chernobyl And Other Adventures in the World's Most Polluted Places for his personal experience with the tar sands in chapter two.

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