Shifting Course. Reducing Risk.

Progress is often very rapid in the oil sands industry; so here at the Oil Sands Developers Group editorial board, we are taking stock of the significant progress driving the environmental evolution of the industry.

You may remember the recent changes required to oil sands tailings technology and management as a result of ERCB Directive 74. The Government of Alberta has recently followed up by revamping the oil sands mining reclamation and liability management programs.

The program changes reclamation reporting by boosting the number of milestones used to track reclamation and increasing the transparency of reporting reclamation progress. Beyond this, liability management was also increased by requiring an upfront payment when the risk of mine closure or abandonment is at a minimum (and its resource potential is at a maximum) followed by full financial security collected later in the mine’s life - but before assets are completely reduced. As has always been the case in Alberta, no matter if oil sands resources are developed using mining or in-situ (drillable) technologies, you simply cannot leave a mess behind … reclamation is, and always has been, a responsibility of the industry. In Alberta, reclamation is the law. One hundred per cent of the land developed by oil sands producers will, and must, be reclaimed.

Water monitoring in the oil sands region is another issue that has engendered recent criticism. The Government of Alberta has responded by appointing a panel to create a robust, credible and transparent environmental monitoring, evaluation and reporting system in the province, beginning with the oil sands region.

There has already been a lot of good data collected by the monitoring programs in the region; nevertheless, oil sands operators look forward to the enhanced monitoring program and are certain that it will provide added benefit by integrating monitoring across all media (i.e. air, land, water and biodiversity).

The Government of Alberta has also recently announced an extremely proactive and integrated cumulative effects management system. The Lower Athabasca Regional Plan (LARP) includes the setting aside of 17 per cent of northeast Alberta (an area larger than the combined total of Banff and Jasper National Parks), including the potential claw-back of some oil sands leases. This is over and above the 20 per cent of northeast Alberta that has already been set aside via Wood Buffalo National Park (which by itself is nine times larger than the total area of surface minable oil sands).

In the end, this plan could conserve more than two million hectares of habitat for native species and increase recreation and tourism opportunities. As well, the LARP puts strict, science-based environmental limits in place for the management of regional scale cumulative effects on air, land disturbance, water and biodiversity.

Does this mean that all of the issues with respect to this plan are resolved? Unfortunately, no. Oil sands developers look forward to working with government to define details of compensation for oil sands leases that may be cancelled, issues impacting investment certainty and the workings of the environmental management tools that have been introduced. We are confident that government and industry will be able to resolve these issues in a manner that is in the overall best interest of the people of Alberta.

Manufacturing – whether it is oil, clothing, agriculture or any other product that supports our way of life – has an impact on the environment. This is why it is so crucial to have a deep understanding of what is taking place, the impacts we are having and how we can further protect the environment. The oil sands industry fully understands that we must all work together to monitor as wholly as possible, deliver transparent results and meet the expectations of the public while continuing to provide a secure and reliable energy source and the economic benefits that have been described as a job creation engine for Canada.

Did you know...

Canada’s oil reserves are second in the world behind Saudi Arabia

Of 179 billion barrels of Canada’s oil reserves, the oil sands represent 97 per cent

For each permanent oil sands-related job, nine additional direct, indirect and induced jobs are created in Canada.

Currently 240,000 jobs in Canada are directly or indirectly linked to the oil sands.

Between 2000 and 2020, oil sands development has the potential to generate at least $123 billion in royalty and tax revenues for Canada’s federal and provincial governments.

The oil sands currently account for only 4.6 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. This is less than 0.1 per cent of total global emissions.

Alberta was the first jurisdiction in North America to legislate industrial greenhouse gas emission reductions.

Producers have made great strides in reducing the amount of emissions per barrel of bitumen extracted from the oil sands. The equivalent of 2.6 million tonnes of reductions have been made – the same as taking more than 550,000 cars off the road.

The province of Alberta has committed $4 billion toward climate change initiatives, including $2 billion for public transit and $2 billion for carbon capture and storage (CCS). This is the largest CCS investment in the world.

Air quality around oil sands operations is better than all North American cities reviewed by the Alberta Clean Air Strategic Alliance.

Alberta air quality standards are the most stringent in Canada.

Air quality in Fort McMurray is monitored around the clock. Results are available at the WBEA site.

Air quality has been extensively modeled and demonstrated to remain within Alberta’s strict air quality guidelines even with all projected oil sands development in place.

Oil sands are located below the surface of 140,200 square kilometres of land, 4.5 per cent of Canada’s total boreal forest.

Mineable oil sands only exist under 0.1 per cent of Canada’s total boreal forest.

While disturbance is occurring daily, in more than 40 years oil sands mining has disturbed about one hundredth of one per cent of the Canadian boreal forest – some 500 square kilometres.

Since 2001, coordinated efforts between government and industry through Integrated Landscape Management (ILM) activities have reduced land surface disturbance in the region by 20 per cent.

As required by law, and included in all project approvals, reclamation work is ongoing and continuous in the oil sands. All lands disturbed by oil sands will be reclaimed.

Mining is only an option for oil sands that sit less than 75 metres under the surface.

More than 80 per cent of the oil sands will be developed using in-situ technologies.

In-situ projects resemble conventional oil development and do not require tailings ponds, or mine pits.

In-situ operations create linear disturbance of the surface for wellheads. But new technology and processes, including low-impact seismic and directional drilling, are reducing that footprint.

In Alberta, Alberta Environment regulates oil and gas industry water use under the Water Act. Oil and gas companies are subject to the same conditions for use as any other licensed water user in Alberta.

Currently, the oil sands industry draws less than half the water allocation allowed by Alberta Environment from the Athabasca River.

Water allocations are strictly controlled during low flow periods.

More than 80 per cent of water drawn by industry from the Athabasca is recycled.

Non-potable water which is unsuitable for drinking, livestock or irrigation use is used wherever possible for in-situ production.

Alberta Environment prohibits the release of any water to the Athabasca River that does not meet water quality requirements.

RAMP, a multi-stakeholder body, conducts annual monitoring of the river’s fish species, fish habitat and water quality. The monitoring has not detected significant changes to the Athabasca River.

Bitumen from exposed oil sands along the river banks has seeped naturally into the Athabasca River as it cut its way through the landscape.

Tailings contain the water, residual bitumen, sand and clay that is left over when the bitumen is separated from the sand.

In the ponds, the solids separate from the water so the water may be recycled into the process again. Of the total water used by oil sands mines, 80 per cent is recycled.

During and after mining, the tailings ponds are reclaimed. No tailings water is released to the Athabasca River or any other watercourse.

The first tailings ponds will be reclaimed in 2010.

80 per cent of the oil sands resource will be developed using in-situ technology which does not require tailings ponds.

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