Reclaiming reality: Oil sands reclamation projects are more talk than action

Reclaiming reality

Oil sands reclamation projects are more talk than action

Matt Jones
Photography by Robin Jones

Amid the rampant industrial upheaval that surrounds Fort McMurray lies a slice of serenity where a young forest grows and wood bison frolic. Located just off Highway 63 are the Wood Bison Viewpoint and the Wood Bison Trails. The Viewpoint is home to 300 wood bison, the descendants of 32 animals initially brought there in 1993 by oil giant Syncrude. Across the street are the Trails. Also known as Gateway Hill, this is the 104-hectare former dumping site for excavated land that last March earned Syncrude Alberta’s first ever oil sands land reclamation certificate...

For Syncrude, this certification is quite the achievement, something it boasts about on its website. But to Greenpeace Alberta’s Mike Hudema, the fact that only one certification has been issued in forty-one years of oil sands mining is unimpressive.

“It’s a huge greenwashing attempt,” he says, pointing out that the reclaimed land is now a woodland instead of the wetland it once was.

The Alberta Government claims that reclamation certificates are serious business. According to them, all companies must meet province’s strict reclamation standards by “...restor[ing] Alberta's land so it can be productive again.” Non-oil sands sites have had more than 60,000 such certificates issued since 1963. So why, then, has only one certificate ever been issued to a Fort McMurray oil sands company?

Turns out none of the developers are applying for them, even though Syncrude claims to have reclaimed 4000 hectares while rival Suncor says it has returned 1000 hectares to a productive state. Despite these numbers, Gateway Hill is the only piece of land that certification has ever been applied for.

According to Suncor spokesperson Brad Bellows, reclamation is a lengthy process and “...seeking certification is always the last step.”

Since certified land becomes public property, companies want to be certain that they have no long term intentions for the property. Bellows is certain that all the land will eventually be reclaimed, even the toxic tailings ponds that surround the mining operations.

“We’re now in the process of final selection. We expect the first tailings pond reclamation certification in 2010,” he says.

Hudema is sceptical. “They have no real reclamation strategy [for the ponds],” he says. “They just don’t know how they’re going to do it.”

Certified or not, Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute says these current reclamation efforts are minimal, given that over 65,000 square kilometres has been leased for oil sands activity. He explains that wildlife populations are already suffering as a result of the access created by industrial development.  

Both Greenpeace and the Pembina Institute are calling for a moratorium on new oil sands projects until a truly green way of dealing with them can be found. Meanwhile, oil production is to expected to grow from 1.26 billion barrels per day in 2006 to as many as 2 billion barrels per day by 2010.  

This Magazine January-February 2009


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