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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Who is Responsible for Land Reclamation in Alberta?

Reclamation is an emerging hot topic in the minds of Albertans according to the Cambridge Strategies Inc Discrete Choice Modeling survey on oil sands development. We have unnecessary seismic lines, old oil and gas and forestry roads, abandoned well sites, pipeline disturbance all over the province that could be reclaimed. We have the open pit oil sands disturbances including tailing ponds and the really big oil sands show is the in-situ development where 70% of future oil sands activity is going to take place.

The question on my mind is if reclamation an afterthought in the consciousness industry and policy makers in Alberta? If so how long can this go on and who is ultimately responsible to pay for reclamation in the end? The old conventional industry game was for reclamation responsibility to be with the original developing oil company. The big guys, who do the really big plays, take on the reclamation responsibility at the front end. As the production diminishes the wells get sold off to juniors and smaller players who further exploit the wells and assume the reclamation duties. As the wells get really inefficient they get sold off to smaller and smaller groups who can use shell companies to pick up the dwindling production wells.

Then these micro players bankrupt the shell companies and leave the reclamation obligations unfulfilled. Not good. As I understand it the reasonability for reclamation can be enforced up the chain of ownership to the original players. If that is the case how often is that enforced by the government? If not, why not?

Another “disturbing” point about reclamation is the requirements to return the lands to a useful purpose akin to the original one would hope. Conventional site reclamations only require the l companies to plant grass…not even replace the trees they took out. In the early days of open pit oil sands mining the operators just stripped off the “overburden” and piled it up. One man’s overburden is another man’s topsoil and trees. Other species with whom we share the overburden lands call them home. How is it possible to replace the topsoil and the surface organic material that will sustain a forest growth if it is all mixed up in a pile? If this is what has happened one has to ask can the legal responsibility of developers to reclaim open pit oil sands mines ever be met with such operational practices?

The regulators have recently changed this and the Shell Albion project has actually for the first time separated the overburden into different piles so there is at least a chance it can be returned in some form so future efforts at reclamation may have a chance of supporting growth.

We better start looking seriously at responsibilities for reclamation now. We can’t wait any longer to get our heads around this problem. I am hoping we see something significant about reclamation in the soon to be released Land Use Framework of the GOA.

Short sighted development that is not integrated and enlightened cannot be the default position of Alberta. Albertans know this and it is time for our government to catch up to this reality and get aggressive about enforcing reclamation obligations.