Does the oil sands production process permanently damage the land on which it takes place?
By law, oil sands development areas have to be restored to their natural state by Canadian companies operating there. Moreover, $2 billion investments have been made in carbon capture and storage technology to further reduce GHG emissions. Canadian oil producers and the government have laid out a comprehensive strategy to protect the environment while extracting oil sands.
Oil sands mining produces tailings. Oil sands tailings are a mixture of water, clay, sand and residual hydrocarbons that are left over after oil is extracted from mined material. These are stored in a pond, where the heavier components —mostly sand—settle over time. Eighty-five percent of the water settling on top of the pond is recycled. In an exciting new development, Canadian energy company Suncor has developed a way to speed up the tailings process as well as a new technology that will eliminate the need for tailings ponds altogether. In fact, Suncor has transformed tailing ponds back into a state to support grasses and thousands of tree seedlings.
How is this possible? The reclamation process involves filling in the pond with a dried out clay residue called mature fine tailings (or MFTs), which forms a new bed beneath a layer of muskeg, the spongy topsoil that nourishes Alberta’s boreal forest. Suncor’s Wapisiw Lookout is a great example of land that has undergone this reclamation process.
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