Mining in Alberta's oil sands region has significant land impacts. Industry is legally obligated to reclaim all disturbed land to an equivalent capability, and return it to the Government of Alberta. Mines are often in operation for decades and reclamation activities on these sites can subsequently take decades to complete.
As the oil sands industry has matured, reclamation efforts are accelerating. As of December 31, 2013, about 82 square kilometres are under active reclamation, and significant investment by industry and government enables continual improvement in reclamation technology and techniques.
The map to the right shows that, while the oil sands underlie a 142,200 km2 area in northeastern Alberta, the oil sands surface mining area is limited to a 4,800 km2 region near Fort McMurray -- 7813 km2 was cleared, disturbed, or ready for reclamation as of December 31, 2013 (~0.2 per cent of Alberta's boreal forest).
- About 82 km2 is under active reclamation.
- Industry has planted more than 12 million tree seedlings towards reclamation efforts.
80 per cent of the oil sands are accessible by in situ methods only (bitumen is separated from the sand underground and pumped to the surface).
- In situ's land disturbance is 10 to 15 per cent of a similar sized mining operation and produces no tailings ponds.
The Reclamation Process
In 2009, new definitions were introduced to better track the level of land disturbance and reclamation progress to date.
Certified Reclaimed - 104 hectares
If an area meets stringent requirements for reclamation, regulators will issue final certification and the land is returned to the Crown as public land. To date, one area called Gateway Hill is certified reclaimed.
Permanent Reclaimed - 5,447 hectares
Landform design, soil placement, and revegetation are complete (for both land and aquatic ecosystems). Companies must use local plant species to target the return of local boreal forest ecosystems. Soils are tested and tree and shrub growth is monitored for 15+ years. When ecological trends are achieved, the company can apply for reclamation certification.
Temporary Reclaimed - 1,244 hectares
Some areas are reclaimed and revegetated to grasses for the purposes of stabilization and erosion control. These areas may also see future distrubance.
Soils Placed - 1,543 hectares
Soils have been placed as directed by each facility's reclamation and soil placement plans, as approved by regulators.
Ready for Reclamation - 181 hectares
Areas that are no longer required for mine or plant purposes and are therefore available for eclamation. Reclamation activites have not begun.
Disturbed - 61,832 hectares
Land is still part of the active operations of a facility.
Cleared - 19,265 hectares
Land is cleared of vegetation, but the soil is relatively undisturbed. In forested areas, the trees are harvested and some of the smaller wood may be conserved for use in reclamation.
Before any mining project begins, industry must develop and receive approval for closure plans that outline how affected areas will be reclaimed.
Mine operators must provide financial security to protect Albertans from having to assume costs of suspension, abandonment, redmediation and reclamation should operators not meet their obligations. As of August 31, 2014, the Alberta government held over $1 billion in reclamation security for the oil sands industry.
Once reclamation is complete, monitoring activities begin. It can take 15 or more years to effectively establish a successful ecosystem.
Reclamation certificates are only issued when long-term monitoring demonstrates the reclaimed land meets the objectives of equivalent land capability.