September 13, 2008
The public debate on oil sands fails to recognize that restoration is possible and not that expensive.
Alberta’s oil sands projects are ugly. Their tailings ponds pockmark the northern Alberta wilderness. Their open pit mines scar the land. This certifiable ugliness, the trademark symbol of oil sands destruction, has been the chief source of opposition to their development over the three decades that this rawest of resource industries has been in play.
This reason for oil sands opposition has largely disappeared. Oil sands still scar the land but in time the scars are removed, the tailings ponds are drained, the biota is brought back, and the land becomes as productive as before. Oil sands developments, far from being among the worst of energy technologies, now have less of a long-term negative impact on the landscape than many of the energy technologies touted as environmental saviors.
Thanks to ever tightening environmental legislation from the Alberta government, all oil sands operators are required to rehabilitate the land that they had despoiled. Skeptics pooh pooh this obligation, claiming that the scale of destruction on the vast oil sands expanse will be too great to ever remediate, that the work will never be done, that it will be too expensive.
To the contrary, the scale of destruction is far less extensive than imagined, the cost of remediation is far lower than imagined, and the remediation is being done along the way.
The oil sands region is indeed immense – just over 140,000 square kilometres, the equivalent of about two New Brunswicks. But of that, less than 3,500 square kilometres is suited to open pit mining operations. Of this still-large amount of land – approaching 5% of one New Brunswick – only 500 square kilometers has been disturbed to date and, of that, 13% has already been rehabilitated (Syncrude, the largest open-pit miner, has rehabilitated 22%). Relatively little land is laid bare at one time because the mining proceeds in a methodical fashion, in relatively small parcels at a time. After each parcel of land is mined out, it is backfilled, topped with the original over-matter, resoiled and replanted. While the vanguard of the mining operation chews up the land, the rearguard puts it back into place.
From the first shovel in the ground to begin the mining process, to the last tree that’s replanted, can take as little as 15 years, of which 10 years might be spent in remediation. The cost of the remediation per hectare per year now averages about: $2000, or $20,000 should the remediation take 10 years. Because that same hectare will have produced 10,000 barrels of oil, remediation costs as little as $2 per barrel.
The tailings ponds – better thought of as recycling pits – are part of this extract-and-reconstruct process. The ponds are not stagnant but dynamic, a half-way house for the gooey, silty wastes that come from the open-pit mining process. Over time, the solids in the tailings pond settle to the bottom, allowing the water to be recycled for other industrial operations and the solids to be pumped out for backfill. When the ponds are no longer needed in recycling, they are either topped up with fresh water, to become an ecologically sound lake, or backfilled and landscaped.
The overwhelming portion of the oil sands region – more than 135,000 square kilometres – has bitumen deposits too deep for open pit mining. Here, developers bring the bitumen up through wells, an operation not much different in terms of disturbing the land than the conventional oil drilling that has occurred over much of Alberta for decades. Little land is disturbed. For every billion barrels of oil extracted, and most oil sands oil will come from these wells, a mere 5.5 square kilometres of land will be disturbed.
None of this is pretty or easy on the environment, but energy production rarely is. Alternatives are often far worse and, as a practical matter, represent permanent and irreversible changes to the ecology. To obtain coal, we sometimes level entire mountains. To generate hydroelectricity, we flood vast tracts of river valley. To obtain, biofuels we convert forests to plant fuel crops.
Oil sands’ need to restore land is only one of its environmental burdens. This spring, some 500 migratory birds died when they landed in Syncrude’s tailings ponds – a severe snowstorm prevented the company’s vehicles from reaching the ponds in time to detonate the cannons that, for the previous 30 years, had succeeded in keeping birds away. Accidents might occur at the tailings ponds – recycled water might escape to the environment if safety systems fail, for example.
Oil sands are by no stretch benign. But neither are they the overarching evil that they’re portrayed to be.
Second in a series, also featuring:
Sands of peace
Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute, and author of The Deniers: The world-renowned scientists who stood up against global warming hysteria, political persecution, and fraud.