Oilsands | Pembina Institute

Alberta's Oilsands Climate Impacts Water Impacts Tailings Reclamation Air Pollution


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Only 0.15% of the area disturbed by oilsands mining is certified as reclaimed by the provincial government.
  • Of the 715 square kilometres (71,500 hectares) of land disturbed by oilsands mining operations, only 1.04 square kilometres (104 hectares) is certified by the government as reclaimed.1
  • Oilsands mine operators have unofficially reclaimed 65 square kilometres, but these values are self-reported. Due to a lack of regulated standards and transparency, this claim has not been verified.2
Oilsands reclamation will not return the boreal forest to its natural state.
  • The Athabasca boreal forest is naturally composed of about 60% wetlands,3 Wetlands perform several important ecological functions, including flood reduction, prevention of erosion, water filtration, recharging water tables and carbon sequestration.4,
  • Reclaimed oilsands landscapes will likely be dominated by end pit lakes and upland forests, not the peatlands and old-growth forests that characterize the natural landscape prior to oilsands extraction.5
  • Research outside the Alberta oil sands region suggests peatland restoration may be possible, but, to date, there has been no demonstration of successful reclamation of peatlands in the Athabasca boreal region.6
Water capping of tailings waste through the creation of end pit lakes is an unproven method for reclaiming tailings waste.7
  • A proposed long-term solution to toxic tailings reclamation is for mining companies to dump tailings waste into old mine pits and cap them with fresh water.8
  • About 30 of these high-risk and experimental "end pit lakes" are planned for the Athabasca Boreal region, subject to demonstration.9
  • The historical data about using end pit lakes as toxic waste dumps are insufficient to determine whether or not they are a safe, long-term tool for reclaiming tailings waste as no example of a functional end pit lake currently exists. 10
Collection of financial security for oilsands mining reclamation, mandated under Alberta's Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, is intended to safeguard against Albertans paying for reclamation of oilsands mine but is inadequate and puts Albertans and Canadians at financial risk.
  • The Mine Financial Security Program is Alberta's insurance policy in case an oilsands mining company fails to reclaim the land. It allows oilsands operators to use undeveloped oilsands deposits as collateral for mine cleanup costs during the life of a mine project. Full reclamation security is only required for the last six years of operation.11This system means that taxpayers effectively underwrite massive financial liabilities during the majority of an oilsand’s mine’s lifetime.12
  • In 2011, the total cash deposits, bonds, and letter of credit guarantees for oilsands mines in the Mine Financial Security Program was $912 million for 71,497 hectares of disturbed land, or only $12,756 per hectare.13 However, based on the limited government and industry data available, estimates suggest the cost of reclaiming this disturbed land will be $10-$15 billion, or approximately $220,000 to $320,000 per hectare.14
  • A reclamation security program is supposed to ensure that industry, not the public, is responsible for any unforeseen reclamation liabilities. If the program is underfunded, taxpayers rather than industry might be on the hook for cleanup costs.15 One report suggests the underfunded security program could be exposing each Alberta taxpayer to a tax liability of $4,300 to $6,300.16 Under the new reclamation security program, the financial risk carried by Alberta taxpayers will increase.17
updated April 2013


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