Commentary: Five perspectives on oilsands closure

Much of the discussion these days around oilsands extraction in Alberta has focused on what the area can and should look like after closure.

Here are the views of several authorities on the subject, who are to be members of a panel to be presented as part of the Mine Closure 2011 ( conference in Lake Louise, Alta., to be held Sept. 18-21, 2011. Global Reach Communications edited excerpts from their replies to the following questions:

How have closure issues affected public perception of the oil sands?  

Terry Bachynski, president & CEO of JDEL Associates in Edmonton, Alta: Many people see the oilsands negatively because they think of them as representing an impossible and unsolvable closure and reclamation scenario.

What is lost is the understanding that the disturbed footprint for open pit mines is necessary for a well-operated, functioning, safe oilsands development.

The timelines for these projects also contribute to the misunderstanding. The mining activity continues for decades and the tailings ponds are functioning facilities throughout the active life of the mine. The reclamation efforts will also stretch over decades.

Shannon Flint, director of the Northern Region, Alberta Environment, Edmonton, Alta.: The public sees that we’ve only issued one reclamation certificate so far, in 2008.

But they may not understand how much reclamation work has actually been completed. Projects like these are long-term in nature; some can take up to 40 to 80 years.

Alberta Environment is developing more transparency around the reclamation process, so people understand the work that is being accomplished and how much progress is being made.

Jennifer Grant, oilsands program director at the Pembina Institute, Calgary, Alta.: There has been a great deal of public concern around the potential loss of wetlands, how the mines will eventually be closed, long-term risks such as seepage from tailings ponds, the unproven performance of end-pit lakes as long-term storage sites for tailings waste, and transparency around the reclamation process and performance in general. All of these are negative factors in the public perception.

At the same time, the public is hearing that there is a lot of progress being made in many of these areas. Increased transparency, clarity on the rules, and reduced uncertainty around long-term reclamation risks would go a long way to restore public trust and understanding.

Richard Houlihan, chief oilsands engineer in the oilsands mining group of the Energy Resources Conservation Board, Alta.: Many people are concerned about the sheer size of the areas being affected by oil sands operations.

Aerial photos of oil sands mining developments are used by critics to draw attention to the large open pits and tailings ponds with little evidence of land reclamation.

Others, particularly the First Nations, are concerned about the tailings ponds and the potential for seepage, which may affect surface water quality.

Melody Lepine, director of government & industry relations, Mikisew Cree First Nation, Fort McMurray, Alta.: There is widespread public concern about the sheer scale of the operations – both the amount of land disturbed and the physical infrastructure that has been installed to process the bitumen.

It will be a serious challenge to reclaim or put everything back to anything close to the condition it was in before the development began. Many people think that this will be an ongoing legacy and liability.

What are the two biggest challenges facing effective closure in oil sands operations?

Terry Bachynski: I do not see technical requirements of closure as the biggest issue. While management of the tailings and of the process water are major issues, they are manageable.

Rather, the key issues are around public understanding and confidence on one hand, and time and patience on the other. All stakeholders – industry, government, Aboriginal, and the public – must understand that monitoring, active mitigation and maintenance of the reclaimed mining footprint could go on for many decades after closure.

This is not a bad thing. It demonstrates that industry will not walk away from its ultimate reclamation responsibilities after the economic life of the project.  

Shannon Flint: The first is tailings ponds, specifically their reclamation over the long term, water treatment, and whether it’s sustainable to use fresh water to cap the end-pit lakes.

The second big challenge is better integration of reclamation and closure expectations from planning to landform design, soil placement, vegetation and monitoring.

Jennifer Grant: Number one is the financing of closure liability. There is yet no clear answer around how much to save.

Number two is resolving the technical challenges of reclamation, such as restoring peat wetlands.

Richard Houlihan: 1. Tailings ponds – the need to reduce fluid tailings accumulation and reclaim ponds.

2. Water – once the water is removed from the tailings, what should be done with it? It should be reused/recycled to the extent possible and the balance treated to the point where it can be released or used in other operations.

Melody Lepine: 1. Reclamation and remediation of the disturbed land – potential contamination from the tailings, sulphur and coke being produced and trying to achieve biodiversity again so a functioning boreal ecosystem can be established once again.

2. Decommissioning or the removal of the actual structures. There was strong motivation to bring in these large steel structures to build the operational plants- but will the same motivation be there to take them away again, when the need for them is over?


What is the single most important step that the oilsands participants can take towards more effective closure?

Terry Bachynski: Show progress and success in a meaningful way and get that positive message out there.

Nothing works better to build public confidence (and by extension, political confidence, since low political confidence can lead to bad policy and bad regulation) in the ongoing development of oilsands than achieving successful reclamation targets that are measureable, visible and well communicated to external audiences.

Because these developments extend beyond the life of individuals, it is important to show progress along the way – evidence that we are succeeding and on track to successful closure and reclamation.

Shannon Flint: More incorporation of adaptive management. This means responding to changing public concerns, environmental trends, technological developments in areas such as tailings management, and other changes to produce the best outcomes.

This will require keeping good records of the reclamation work performed and demonstrating good practice over time.

Jennifer Grant: Providing publicly available and realistic information on the costs and outcomes of reclamation.  

It is critical that public expectations inform and influence what is achievable in advance of any future development and that companies are properly bonded with regards to their closure obligations.

Richard Houlihan: Go and do it. We’ve been telling companies that they must eventually get their leases back into similar status as before they started resource extraction.

This was part of the motivation behind the government of Alberta’s Resources Conservation Board’s Directive 74 in 2009, which requi
res companies to get to work on reclaiming fluid tailings.

Companies have been slow to reclaim tailings ponds and that’s not surprising because this work is at the back end and is a cost, rather than a source of revenue.

Reclamation of tailings is essential to industry sustainability.

Melody Lepine: We need a more transparent process around the security or liability funds being set up to pay for the remediation, reclamation and decommissioning of the disturbed areas.

Right now, there is no way to easy way to obtain information, for example to go online, to learn how the amounts were decided upon, whether the money is wisely managed, and how it will eventually be spent.

If the expected final cost goes up, is there a mechanism in place to increase the fund? And if technology evolves, say, to take care of the tailings issue, is there provision that the fund can be adjusted downwards or the money redirected to where it is still needed?

Without transparency around this, the perception is that the industry and government are hiding a future liability that our children will inherit and have to deal with.

– Global Reach Communications, which compiled this report, helps business advisory professionals communicate their expertise to members of the business community. For more information, visit


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