The oil sands are found within Canada’s vast boreal forest, which stretches 5,000 kilometres from coast to coast and covers roughly 30 percent of this country’s land mass. Oil sands critics say extracting bitumen, especially using surface mining methods, is destroying Canada’s boreal forest.
For example, an oft-repeated myth is that Canada’s oil sands have disturbed a land area larger than England. Another claim, by Global Forest Watch Canada, states “… industrial development and forest fires in Canada’s tar sands region have cleared or degraded 775,500 hectares (almost two million acres) of boreal forest since 2000 – six times the land area of New York City.” And according to the Boreal Songbird Initiative, “… the footprint of resource extraction in the boreal has already surpassed 180 million acres — around twice the size of Japan.” (This claim appears to apply across Canada, not just the oil sands region – but it’s still an unreasonably large number.)
The actual land disturbance attributable to oil sands development is far different. Yes, there is disturbance but the magnitude of that impact is frequently exaggerated. Here is what you need to know:
According to Natural Resources Canada, the total area of Western Canada’s oil sands resource accessible through surface mining represents 0.2 per cent of Canada’s boreal forest. That isn’t a typo. Since 1967, 0.03 per cent of Canada’s entire boreal forest has been disturbed by oil sands mining.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) uses a slightly different statistic: of the total area defined as having oil sands resources – 142,000 square kilometres (km2), only three per cent (4,800 km2) could be ever disturbed by surface mining.
The actual current disturbed area is even smaller. To date, about 904 km2 of land has been disturbed by the oil sands, mostly through surface mining but also including drilling, in situ development and related infrastructure.
In situ production is used to recover oil sands resources that are too deep to mine. Currently, in situ accounts for for 53 per cent of oil sands production by volume; from a land surface perspective, about 80 per cent of Canada’s bitumen deposits are too deep to mine, so these resources could be recovered through in situ processes.
The Government of Alberta requires that companies remediate and reclaim all disturbed land after the oil sands have been extracted by either mining or in situ production. Reclamation means land is returned to a self-sustaining ecosystem with local vegetation and wildlife. Today, about 11 per cent of disturbed land has been reclaimed, including wetland and water features. Some examples:
Syncrude was the first operator to receive government certification for reclaimed land. To date, the company has permanently reclaimed more than 3,800 hectares of land, with an additional 1,000 hectares capped with soil and ready for revegetation. Syncrude has also planted more than 8.5 million tree and shrub seedlings.
Suncor also has a strong track record, reclaiming about 10 per cent of the 22,205 hectares of the land disturbed, including 2,179 hectares of terrestrial reclamation and 48 hectares of wetlands and aquatic reclamation. (For comparison, one hectare is equal to 0.01 km2, or 2.5 acres.)
Among the research focus areas for Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) is accelerating the reclamation process. COSIA member companies are involved with a variety of projects from topsoil reconstruction to rebuilding fens and wetlands.
The bottom line:
The Canadian boreal forest is the largest intact forest on earth. In fact, 91 per cent of the forest is still intact and more than three million square kilometres are totally undisturbed. The actual land area disturbed by oil sands development currently amounts to 0.01 per cent of the land mass covered by Canada’s boreal forest.