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Syncrude Sustainable Development Award Decried as “Misleading”

Critics cried foul last week after oilsands giant Syncrude was awarded the inaugural Towards Sustainable Mining Environmental Excellence Award at the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum (CIM) industry gala held in Vancouver on Monday, May 12.

The Fort McMurray-based company was recognized for its work in land reclamation, the attempt to re-establish ecosystems destroyed during oilsands development.

The company was specifically lauded for its work with fen wetlands, a sensitive and complex peat ecosystem that is a key part of the Boreal Forest and the local watershed, through its Sandhill Fen Research Watershed Initiative research project.

“We're quite pleased to have been selected. We see it as a demonstration of our commitment to improving our reclamation process,” said company spokesperson Will Gibson by phone. “It underscores our need to meet the public's expectations, and part of that is constant improvement.”

But, for some, labelling any work done in the oilsands as 'sustainable' may be premature, if not entirely contradictory. 

An 'industry award'

“It's industry giving awards to industry,” said Carolyn Campbell of the Alberta Wilderness Association, a conservation group working to conserve ecosystems and wilderness in the province. “It's misleading to say they are taking a significant approach to sustainable mining. Tar sands mining is inherently unsustainable. The push for fossil fuel development is destroying the boreal wetlands.”

For Campbell, attempts to bring back ecosystems that have been under pressure from mining for decades is too little too late. “This needed to be considered 40 years ago,” when the first oilsands developments began, said Campbell.

Most people may have heard of peatlands – Canada is the world's largest producer of peat moss for horticultural purposes – but few know about the importance, and uniqueness, of fens. While similar to peat bogs, fens are distinguished by a high water table and a slow, regular flow of water which makes them much more rich in minerals and much less acidic than bogs.

Fens support a specific set of vegetation and animal life and, because of these unique characteristics, are considered much more difficult to reproduce than other peatlands – which already present an enormous ecological challenge. Fens are an integral part of the northern Boreal ecosystem, which itself is tied to the health of Canada's important watersheds, like the adjacent Athabasca and Peace River watersheds. While fens are a small part of the entire Boreal forest, their loss has a significant impact on the surrounding ecosystem.

Their importance isn't lost on Gibson, who stressed in the interview that Syncrude is committed to monitoring their 52 hectare test site for the next 10 to 20 years in order to better understand and replace the fens that have been removed during oilsands development.

Gibson strongly rejects the ideas that Syncrude's reclamation work is simply window dressing. “Over half of our [research and development] spending goes into reclamation projects,” he said, adding, “would people prefer we do nothing?”

Reclamation cannot offset conservation

“Of course, they shouldn't be doing nothing,” Eriel Deranger told DeSmog Canada in a telephone interview. Deranger is a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN), located over 200km northeast of Fort McMurry and directly downstream from the centre of oilsands development. Her traditional territory lies in the Athabasca watershed and has been significantly affected by industrial development to the south. 

“Reclamation work needs to be done. But it can't be used to justify the further expansion of the tar sands,” Deranger said. She is also a spokesperson for the annual Healing Walk, which brings together Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to visit the oilsands region and discuss industry's impacts.

For Deranger, the question isn't only about whether the fens can eventually be brought back, but the immediate and ongoing impacts that are justified through what is branded as 'sustainable development' of the oilsands.

The destruction of key parts of the northern Boreal ecosystem has a direct impact on the ACFN's and other First Nations' access to their traditional territory and to their way of life.

“The real issue,” she said, “is that these projects are going to be erasing these ecosystems for 50 to 100 years. That also means the loss of our treaty rights for 50 to 100 years.” And while it's clear that there have been advances in reclamation techniques, she said, the pace of development in the oilsands has greatly outrun any improvements.

The uncertain science 

Recent scientific reports have presented mixed results about the potential for reclamation. A 2013 study from the Université de Laval's Peatland Ecology Research Group found that the various mosses found in peat fens were able to withstand water with higher salt contents – similar to what they would be exposed to in reclamation areas – at a higher degree than expected, which researchers felt showed a strong indication that fens could be re-introduced post-mining.

At the same time, they highlighted that the study was done in limited laboratory settings, and that the complexities of a natural environment would complicate the re-establishment process.

Even if fens can be re-introduced, another peer-reviewed report questioned whether reclamation efforts could ever truly re-create or undo the damage of the original fens in the first place.

In a 2012 paper, researchers Rebecca C. Rooney, Suzanne E. Bayley, and David W. Schindler from the University of Alberta concluded that regardless of the ability to re-establish fens, the destruction of peatlands – which store a large amount of carbon in the ground, acting as a massive natural carbon sink – would result in the release of seven years worth of mining and upgrading emissions at 2010 production levels into the atmosphere.

They also noted the difficulty of recreating the water flow necessary for fens will mean that any eventual reclamation results would cover 65 per cent less territory than fens covered pre-mining.

Of the total area currently mined for oilsands, only 0.12 per cent of the land has been certified reclaimed, with some seven percent currently in progress of being reclaimed. The only certified reclaimed site is Sycrude's Gatweay Hill, which received the official reclamation distinction from Alberta Environment in 2008.

While the site has been vaunted as an industry success, Deranger sees it as a disturbing precursor to reclamation projects as the future for her people's territory. Gateway Hill, she said, is a clear sign that industry-styled reclamation projects cannot be used as an offset for protecting untouched land.

“I see fenced-in areas that have no relevance or value to First Nations people. They're fenced-in regions that they tout as a conservation zone,” she said.

"These areas were once areas that housed wild buffalo, that hunters and trappers utilized, that fishers utilized, that we considered sacred sites. And we're talking about creating a big sign that says, 'Look at the successes of this industry!' Why don't we juxtaposition it with, 'Look at what industry has destroyed.' Frankly, it's a little bit absurd and insulting."

Image Credit: Syncrude's Gateway Hill from CAPP

Tim McSorley is a freelance journalist and editor with Media Co-op.ca. He lives in Montreal.

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