The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

Oil Sands and a Lush Meadow

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted August 4, 2011

It's mid-afternoon, and the sky is darkening with the arrival of summer showers, seemingly from every direction. Tall grasses blanketing the hillocks and swales of Wapisiw Lookout ripple in the wind as drops patter down. In the distance, a 2-year-old black bear cub bumbles across what is actually a 550-acre environmental project - in the heart of Canada's oil sands region. Go figure.

The fact is lots of people have done lots of figuring on the environment at Suncor's oil sands operation near Fort McMurray, Alberta, about 270 miles northeast of Edmonton. More on Canadian oil sands in future posts, but a big part of what's happening along the Athabasca River is the relationship that development of a valuable energy resource can have with the environment.

Suncor carefully recycles its water and frightens away waterfowl that otherwise would land on tailings ponds that would harm them - using pretend cannonading and "effigies," orange floating scarecrows. They're looking at other technologies to keep 30 or so birds from dying each year because they landed on the wrong spot. But none of these is more impressive than Wapisiw Lookout.

The area was Suncor's first tailings pond, a repository for the water, sand and clay remaining from the oil sands mining and separation process. Pond #1 was born in 1967, when Suncor started work, and was still being used 40 years later

Today Pond #1 is gone. It's grasslands and wetlands, with 600,000 trees and shrubs planted by Suncor as part of a commitment to the provincial government to return the tailings pond to its former state.

Lelaynia Cox, a forestry specialist, tells our group of energy reporters and bloggers that dried out clay residue, called mature fine tailings or MFTs, was used to fill in the pond, forming a new bed beneath a layer of muskeg, the spongy topsoil that nourishes the boreal forests here. Grasses were planted as well as jack pine, trembling aspen, white spruce and more - all native of this part of Alberta.

Dead tree trunks were "planted" at intervals to attract roosting birds. Large rocks dot the meadow - placed there to furnish habitat for small mammals. Reclamation specialists deliberately fashioned a rolling terrain to facilitate drainage. As we drive the perimeter, sharp-tailed grouse flush from grassy cover. A solitary young deer freezes a couple hundred yards ahead of our bus then stiffly prances away. A mixed blessing, Cox says; last year the deer herd feasted on a number of Suncor's just-planted seedlings.

If it sounds bucolic, that's the point. Within a couple of miles, Suncor is mining oil sands from a terraced pit that measures more than a mile and a half long and nearly that wide. It's big, it's industrial. (It also is being refilled as the miners move on. Again, more on that to come.) Bottom line: Deer and other wildlife do not play there.

But they do at Wapisiw Lookout, where an energy company has kept its pledge to be a good steward. Remember that the next time those who oppose tapping Canada's abundant, accessible oil sands attack producers like Suncor as anti-environment. It simply isn't so.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.