On a recent trip to Fort McMurray, I took a little trip up to Gateway Hill, the poster child of the oilsands industry’s reclamation efforts. If you ignore what’s going on beyond the wall of aspen and birch, it is a pleasant enough place. Invisible songbirds fill the air with tweets and twitters, and there is ample evidence of an army of busy beavers doing their best to cut the trees down to size. You’d never know that just 30 years ago, this forested upland was part of a Syncrude strip mine, which had turned the boreal forest into what can only be described as an industrial wasteland.
But at just over 100 hectares, Gateway Hill does little to inspire confidence. As government and industry like to remind us, 100 per cent of the land sacrificed to our oil addiction in this obscure part of Canada must be remediated and reclaimed once the bitumen has been extracted, cooked and liquefied, but progress has been slower than an oil-drenched duck. So far, strip mines have ravished an area the size of Edmonton, spewing enough toxic waste into the expanding tailings ponds to fill Toronto’s Skydome — every day. The total comes close to 70,000 hectares. Gateway Hill, the only certified reclamation site, represents just .15 per cent of that, and that doesn’t include the land dominated by in situ development, which now churns out more bitumen crude than the mines.
To be fair, an additional 7,000 hectares are in various stages of “active reclamation,” about 10 per cent of the total area destroyed to date. Most of that, some 5,000 hectares, has been “permanently reclaimed.” Essentially, the soils and vegetation have been replaced, and we’re just waiting to see if the ecosystem can be resurrected before it can be stamped, with much celebration, “reclaimed.”
What concerns me is that no one is quite sure what this place will look like 100 years on. There are several good reasons for skepticism. First, it’s important to differentiate “reclamation” from “restoration.” According to the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER), reclamation has more to do with stabilizing terrain, assuring public safety and “aesthetic improvement” than it does with restoring an ecosystem so that it can “sustain itself structurally and functionally” over the long term, resilient to the “normal ranges of environmental stress and disturbance.” The reclamation of a disturbed or contaminated site could just as easily conclude with a shopping mall as a wetland. Restoration, however, would return the land to the prelapsarian state it was in before the arrival of industrialism, replete with rich soil, an abundance of native plants and animals, and clean, free-flowing streams.
What’s envisioned for the oilsands region is rather more vague than either of these terms suggest, an elusive and infinitely interpretable target that’s somewhere between mall and meadow. Alberta’s Conservation and Reclamation Regulation states that post-mining landscapes must be reclaimed to “an equivalent land capability,” or the ability of the land to support one or more land-uses that are “similar to the ability that existed prior to any activity being conducted on the land,” even though “the individual land-uses will not necessarily be identical.” It’s clear the focus is anthro-, rather than biocentric, the concern more with what can best support human-oriented, and presumably profitable ventures, rather than resurrecting a beleaguered ecosystem to some former semblance of itself.
Such convoluted vagueness has resulted in a superfluity of practical definitions, from the environmentalists’ extremity of restoration to the policy-makers’ “balance” of industrial development and economic development against environmental protection, and everything in between. This confusion, the authors of the Royal Society of Canada’s 2010 critique of oilsands development concluded, “has created a broad barrier, hindering a critical collective agreement on the goal of oilsands reclamation, how, and over what time, achievement of that goal should be assessed, what is biophysically possible, and who should be involved in determining targets and trajectories.”
Such reckless ambiguity, and the fact “capability” is defined largely in the context of commercial forestry, has left many critics to wonder if, in the whirlwind of political chaos that has come to define oilsands development in Alberta, the end product will be some patchwork quilt of lifeless tree farms and sporadic puddles, rather than the forests and fenlands that supported the rich diversity of life that once thrived here.
It’s clear we need some clarity around what, exactly, is expected of the oil industry as they refurbish this complex ecosystem, for the successful restoration of these forests and fens will be an engineering feat at least as “Brobdingnagian” (to borrow Stephen Harper’s ironic exploitation of Jonathan Swift’s neologism) as their destruction. The only similar attempt to do so on such a massive scale comes from southwestern Australia’s Darling Range, where ALCOA mines bauxite to produce one-third of the world’s aluminum. There was once more than three million hectares of Jarrah Forest there, but only 305,000 hectares of unlogged or unaltered forest remains. When ALCOA started its reclamation program in the late 1960s, the goal was to establish a stable, self-regenerating forest ecosystem (i.e. reclamation). But the bar is higher now, and the emphasis is on restoring the original botanical diversity of the Jarrah forest, something that earned ALCOA a Model Project Award from the Society for Ecological Restoration International.
Surely, as a world leader in responsible and sustainable development, the Alberta government can make it clear to the oilsands industry that we aspire to the same high standards. Reclamation is for wimps. Let’s restore it all.