Environmental non-government organizations (ENGOs) have been critical of the oil sands for the slow pace and extent of reclamation.
As we explain below, we think this allegation isn’t representative of the whole story and fails to recognize how much progress our industry has made in recent years.
The underwhelming statistic of “0.2% of disturbed land certified as reclaimed” implies that we and other operators have done nothing about the other 99.8%. In fact the “0.2%” refers only to fully certified reclaimed land.
Under the current regulations, an ecosystem must be fully functioning and ready for return to public use before you get certification. Land on its way to being fully reclaimed (i.e. established trees, but not fully mature) is not counted. And, once it’s certified, the land returns to the Crown and is fully accessible to the public for camping, hunting and other uses – this would be untenable and unsafe because of the proximity of much of this land to heavy industrial operations.
This week’s surface reclamation, but not certification, of our 220 hectare Pond 1 (now Wapisiw Lookout) is a case in point. See details here, including a video, photos, and a live webcam.
It would make for a more complete story if operators were given some credit for achieving intermediate stages on the way to full reclamation. In a recent report, the Pembina Institute agrees with us on this point.
According to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, approximately 11% of the area that has been disturbed by oil sands mining since operations began in the 1960s has been reclaimed by industry. Reclaimed land will be certified by government when it can be returned to public use.
It is also important to note that most oil sands development is relatively new. In such a young sector, it is hardly surprising that only a small part of the total production area has yet to be reclaimed. As mines mature, reclamation is likely to accelerate.
The reclamation debate is not only about the total amount yet reclaimed, but the speed and duration of the overall process across the sector. Stakeholder expectations and the commitment of industry also need to be taken into account. In Rick George’s comments at a ceremony to mark a milestone in the reclamation of Pond 1 he noted, “We said we would be the first oil sands company in the world to complete surface reclamation of a tailings pond. We said we would get the job done in 2010. And we have delivered.”
We know that we still have a lot of work to do. That said, the knowledge gained with Pond 1 and other sites will help us move forward. Looking ahead, oil sands operators are investing heavily – Suncor alone is investing more than $1 billion -- in research and technologies to reduce tailings inventories and speed up reclamation.