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Oil Sands Mining in Canada
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State of the Industry Review

Updated June 2011

Table of Contents

Economics
The oil sands industry contributed over 13.8 billion dollars or 23% of the value of mining in Canada in 2004. At the start of 2005 over 1 million barrels of oil per day were being produced from oil sands primarily from three projects, Suncor, Syncrude joint venture and Albian Sands joint venture.

Oil sands production has grown four-fold since 1990 and exceeded 1.2 million barrels per day (b/d) in 2007. A recent CAPP forecast predicts that oil sands production will reach 3.0 million b/d by 2015.

With growing production from the oil sands, the Canadian Energy Research Institute (CERI) estimates that the value of bitumen and synthetic crude oil produced over the 2000-2020 period could total over $500 billion. CERI estimates that oil sands and oil sands-related activities together could, according to their model, contribute some $789 billion to Canada’s gross domestic product (GDP) over the study period (2000-2020).

A large portion of the economic spinoffs from oil sands development relates to employment that is generated outside Alberta. The impact of the income associated with people who make the materials, goods and services used by the oil sands sector generates significant taxes to other governments in Canada.

The CERI's report Economic Impacts of New Oil Sands Projects in Alberta (2010 - 2035) looks at the oil sands’ impact on Canadian provincial and national economies, and the oil sands’ ripple effects on US state and federal economies.


Socio-Economic Impact
The three main regions affected by the oil sands industry are; Wood Buffalo, Peace River, and Cold Lake. The majority of industry activity is centered around the Wood-Buffalo area. For example, the town of Fort McMurray has seen a doubling of its population since 1996 and its property values are among the highest in the country.

First Nations make up about 6% of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB), the vast majority of whom live in small communities. According to the Pembina Institute, the RMWB is struggling with the socioeconomic impacts such as lack of affordable housing and insufficient infrastructure, e.g. roads and schools. The regional First Nations and Métis face similar challenges as they seek to balance the benefits of job creation and a booming economy with ensuring that their culture, the region’s environment and their traditional way of life are preserved.


Reclamation

The oil sands industry in Alberta is legally obligated to reclaim all disturbed land to a productive state. However, 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. About 67 square kilometres are under active reclamation, and significant investment by industry and government continues into better reclamation technology and techniques.

According to the Government of Alberta's oil sands information page, new definitions were introduced in 2009 to better track the level of land disturbance and reclamation progress to date. The new definitions are as follows (all numbers as of September 2009):

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.

Permanent Reclaimed - 4,654 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 - 854 hectares
Some areas are reclaimed and revegetated to grasses for the purposes of stabilization and erosion control. These areas may also see future disturbance.

Soils Placed - 1, 015 hectares
Soils have been placed as directed by each facility's reclamation and soil placement plans, as approved by regulators.

Ready for Reclamation - 944 hectares
Areas that are no longer required for mine or plant purposes and are therefore available for reclamation. Reclamation activities have not begun.

Disturbed - 40,859 hectares
Land is still part of the active operations of a facility.

Cleared - 17, 912 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.

In September 2010, Suncor became the first oil sands company to have transformed an oil sands tailings pond into a surface solid enough to be actively re-vegetated and reclaimed. Suncor unveiled the completely reclaimed oil sands tailings pond - Pond 1, now called the Wapisiw Lookout. The 220-hectare Pond 1 was built in the 1960s and was decommissioned in late-2006. The area is now a mix of forest and small wetland, supporting a variety of plants and wildlife.

The reclamation process included the following steps:

  • infilling the pond with 30 million tonnes of reclaimed tailings sand
  • removing and transferring water and some MFT to an active pond where the material will be used as feedstock for a consolidating tailings reclamation process
  • developing drainage systems and swales (low tracts of land) to manage water runoff
  • landscaping the pond which involved placing 1.2 million cubic meters of topsoil (about 50 cm deep)
  • planting a cover crop of native grasses and oats
  • collecting seeds from local trees and shrubs, and growing seedlings in the greenhouse
  • fertilizing and monitoring the new growth

Over the next two decades, Suncor will closely monitor progress on Wapisiw Lookout, including the growth of 630,000 shrubs and trees planted in 2010. Ongoing soil, water and vegetation assessments will help ensure this site is on course for return to a self-sustaining ecosystem.

In their 2011 Report on Sustainability, Suncor also mentions that "as of the end of 2010, the company had reclaimed approximately 1,294 hectares, or about 7% of the total land disturbance to date."


Environmental

In 2007, Alberta became the first jurisdiction in North America to legislate GHG reductions on large industrial facilities. Under the Climate Change and Emissions Management Act and its associated Specified Gas Emitters Regulation - any facility, including oil sands facilities - that emits more than 100,000 tonnes of GHGs a year is required to reduce emissions intensity by 12 per cent. Going forward - with 80 per cent of recoverable oil sands being provided by insitu operations - the Alberta government will put in place tighter timelines for reclamation, since insitu extraction methods disturb far less land than mining.

In March 2008, Alberta issued the first-ever oil sands land reclamation certificate to Syncrude Canada Ltd. for the 104-hectare parcel of land known as Gateway Hill, approximately 35 kilometres north of Fort McMurray. As of June 2008, Alberta Environment held over $721 million in reclamation security from oil sands mine companies. Reclamation is based on full-cost of reclamation and is updated annually, based on maximum disturbance in the upcoming year. (Source: Alberta Environment)

There are watchdog groups who regularly report on the environmental implications of the industry. The Pembina Institute maintains the website Oil Sands Watch devoted to monitoring the oil sands industry from an environmental perspective. They have produced a publication called Oil Sands Fever which looks at the implications of the industry and makes recommendations on how to improve environmental management.
Another one of their publications, Death by a Thousand Cuts, focuses on in situ extraction processes.

Here are some of the environmental impacts outlined in the above publications:

Impacts on Water

Oil sands mining operations impact water resources in a number of ways, both directly and indirectly, as a result of muskeg and overburden drainage, aquifer dewatering, withdrawal of water from the Athabasca River and the long-term management of tailings. Similarly, in situ operations can impact the quantity and quality of both groundwater and surface water bodies (including wetlands). From lowering the levels of groundwater aquifers to the production of large volumes of waste associated with water treatment, in situ operations pose a number of risks to water resources.

Oil sands surface mining operations upstream of the Athabasca River have been listed as one of the threats to its integrity because large amounts of water are withdrawn from the river for use in the extraction process. Between two to five barrels of water are withdrawn from the Athabasca River for each barrel of bitumen extracted.

Both oil sands mining and SAGD operations can impact freshwater aquifers by lowering their levels and creating a similar decrease in water levels in streams, ponds, lakes and wetlands that are connected to groundwater. Once the mine pit is excavated, groundwater levels are often lowered in the area to prevent flooding of the pits. Because multiple mines may be pumping water from an aquifer, the removal of groundwater from a large area of the landscape can lower the groundwater level in adjacent areas. This can result in reduced groundwater flows to peatlands, wetlands and other surface water bodies.

Impacts on Land

The Athabasca oil sands deposit is situated completely within the boreal forest covering northern Canada. Environment Canada has warned that the development of the oil sands presents “staggering challenges for forest conservation and reclamation.”

While in situ operations are considered by some to impose less impact on the land than surface mines, the network of seismic lines, roads, power line corridors, pipelines and other infrastructure create a patchwork of fragmented habitat. While habitat fragmentation may appear to have less of an impact than the large open pit mines, it may be the most serious threat to biological diversity. Fragmentation has a negative effect on species that require extensive tracts of habitat such as interior-nesting birds and large carnivores. In addition, the construction of new roads and corridors increases access for hunting and other recreational uses that can place additional pressures on wildlife populations.

Air Pollution

Criteria Air Contaminants (CACs) are the most common air pollutants released by heavy industry burning fossil fuels. CACs are defined as “air pollutants that affect our health and contribute to air pollution problems” and include such things as nitrogen oxides (N0x), sulphur dioxide (S02), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and particulate matter (PM) - all of which are emitted in large volumes by oil sands operations.

The oil sands industry has reduced the volume of pollutants it emits (referred to as emissions intensity) to produce a barrel of synthetic crude oil. Despite these efforts, the emissions intensity of oil sands production for common pollutants remains higher than that of conventional oil production because there are many more steps involved in producing synthetic crude oil from oil sands


Future
With billions of dollars invested in the development and expansion of oil sands projects each year and the sheer size of the resource it would seem that the sky is the limit for the industry. Careful management of the environmental and social impacts as well as advancements in technology will ensure that its full potential is achieved.


Sources:

  • Suncor Energy 2011 Report on Sustainability
  • Suncor Energy - Wapisiw Lookout Reclamation
  • Plant Engineering and Maintenance magazine - Dec 2010
  • Government of Alberta - Oil Sands Reclamation

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