Can we reclaim the oil sands operations? A pretty obvious question. Many, many answers. I surveyed 350 Google hits from the key words “oil sands reclamation.” Most are so partisan as to be avoided. I note here a few that are reasonably objective and informative. I have “posted” a few more that I found interesting, even if biased, in the InfoMine library.

A reasonable overview of the law and regulations related to oil sands development and reclamation is to be found in Overview of Canadian Legal System Related to Oil Sands Activities. Having read this, one must conclude that laws and regulations are in place; all that remains is to enforce them.

Next I recommend you read Canada’s Oil Sands—Opportunities and Challenges to 2015: An Update. This should bring you up to date with the issues, including those related to reclamation. Again one must conclude that we know what the problems are.

A plan to address the issues exists, at least one is described in Fort McMurray Mineable Oil Sands Integrated Resource Management Plan (2005) . There is even a practical checklist, namely the Landscape Design Checklist.

Do we have the tools to model reclamation? A part answer is given by Eishorbay et al . They use a system dynamics watershed model approach to evaluate reclamation strategies. They conclude “The tested reclamation strategy seems to be satisfactory within a certain range of hydrologic conditions. Further validation of the system dynamics watershed model is required, however, before relying on its results for decision support with regard to reclamation strategies.

What has been achieved so far? Not much if this graph from the Alberta Government is to be believed.

Everybody seems to be talking to each other; this is good and can be followed at the Cumulative Environmental Management Association’s website.

I must conclude that we stand at the threshold of a vast new activity. Lots of thinking has been done. Laws have been passed. Standards set. Research has begun. Good intentions expressed. We will watch the coming years with interest. Even more fascinating is the fact that the process is about to begin in the US—See Comments for the Oil Shale and Tar Sands resources Leasing Programmatic EIS (2006). To compare activities in these two great nations will be an adequate reward for being retired and having the time to watch the drama unfold.

By shear coincidence a young colleague submitted to me a piece he had written on the same topic. Keep in mind he is the son of a miner and is studying with the mining department of a prestigious university. His piece is a trifle more acerbic than mine, but I offer it here because it shows what happens when two different minds confront the same dearth of web information on a topic. Here is his piece:

Oilsands are touted as the cure-all solution to the world’s energy woes. Massive deposits in Canada contain 174 billion barrels of oil that are deemed recoverable with current technology. Heavy oil deposits in Venezuela contain another 90 billion barrels. However, oil sands mining technology continues to be refined, and economically recoverable reserves will continue to increase over the next few decades.

However, oilsands extraction in Alberta, Canada, is destroying the boreal forest and bogs overlying the Athabaska deposit, leaving a stark environment unrecognizable as a natural landscape. Oilsands mining has been taking place since 1963, yet not one hectare of land has been ever been certified reclaimed by the Alberta Government.

An oil sands mine has never been closed before; therefore there is no telling how difficult it will be to reclaim tailings ponds and other mine byproducts, and restore the boreal forests and abundant wildlife of the past. These reclamation issues are currently being debated in the context of the Albian Sands Expansion project.

Interestingly, the government has not yet developed a comprehensive guideline for reclamation of lands disturbed by oilsands development. A government website states that:

Reclamation guidelines and a land capability evaluation system for reclaimed oil sands landscapes are currently under development and review. As well, discussions are occurring on developing reclamation criteria tailored to the oil sands area.

How difficult is it to reclaim an oily and chemical-contaminated muck, and turn it into a thriving forest teeming with healthy animals? The fact that companies are currently trying to reclaim lands testifies that someone is making an effort to make things right. Maybe part of the problem is that the oilsands industry is growing so quickly that all the focus is on new development with little thought for long-term planning and closure.

Can these companies be trusted to do the right thing? With the urgency of an impending oil crisis, will environmental concerns take the back seat to satisfying the needs of consumers? Sacrifice of ideals for the sake of supposedly more important needs seems to be very popular in today’s world. Will future Mars-mission trainees spend their time in the barren and lifeless remains of the abandoned oilsands mines?

These questions set me to wondering about other mining projects where there has been whole-scale impact on large areas. Clearly strip mines are one, and there are many examples of these and their reclamation on the web. The example I recall most clearly is the mining of beach sands for titanium in Richards Bay in South Africa. Here are photos of the operations: (See page 5 of this link for an even better picture.)

Since 1977 dredging of the black-speckled beach sands has been ongoing to recover titanium. This is a classic example of dredge mineral sand deposit mining.

Can this type of disturbance be reclaimed? One answer is in a magnificent paper by Cooke and Johnson Ecological restoration of land with particular reference to the mining of metal and industrial mineral: a review of theory and practice—see page 56 for details of Richards Bay. Or the even more fascinating paper by Davis et al Convergence Between Dung Beetle Assemblages on a Post-Mining Vegetational Chronsequence and Unmined Dune Forest.

We look forward to the day similar papers are available about the oil sands reclamation projects.