The oilsands industry needs to limit its growth if it wants to conserve the boreal forest, according to world experts.
About 1,700 biologists from around the world gathered at the Edmonton Shaw Conference Centre this week for the 24th annual meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology. It was the first time that the group had ever met in Alberta.
The conference covered a wide variety of topics, including invasive species, climate change, and the oilsands.
The oilsands have vast and long-lasting impacts on the boreal forest, said speaker Richard Schneider, a member of the integrated landscape management lab at the University of Alberta. While trees might grow back from a forest fire a few years afterwards, land cleared by oilsands development stays clear for decades. The effect is much like an ice age he says — forests will grow back eventually, but “it’s not going to happen quickly.”
Species like pine martin and caribou are vanishing from the boreal despite industry efforts to reduce its impacts, research suggests. “Just being a little bit better while you’re increasing the overall footprint isn’t going to be good enough to maintain biodiversity,” Schneider says.
“The reality is we can’t develop all oilsands everywhere,” he says — we don’t have enough steel to build the wells, for one. If industry focused its development on a small part of the oilsands instead, it could set aside much of the boreal for conservation.
The oilsands industry has disturbed about 135,000 hectares of land in the boreal, says speaker and landscape ecologist Brad Stelfox — equivalent to about 64 per cent of Sturgeon County. Current trends suggest that this area will roughly double in size before reclamation efforts catch up.
In-situ extraction directly disturbs a smaller area than surface mines, Schneider says, but a bigger one indirectly. Animals like caribou tend to avoid the area around pipelines and roads due to noise and predators. Fill the boreal with criss-crossing lines, and you ruin a large amount of habitat. Researchers have found a 50 per cent drop in caribou numbers in the in-situ area during the last decade, he says, and tracked similar drops in pine marten, rose-breasted grosbeak and other species.
Industry has made progress in reducing its land and water use on a per barrel basis, says speaker Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute, but still has big problems when it comes to tailings ponds. The industry has made about 840 billion litres of liquid tailings so far, he says, and expects to make 30 per cent more by 2020 despite a new government directive to get rid of them.
Nor is industry setting aside enough money for reclamation. Based on money contributed to the Alberta Environmental Protection Security Fund, Dyer says, companies planned to spend about $11,000 per hectare — six to 10 times less than what’s thought to be needed. “We could be talking about a very substantial liability.”
Alberta can mine the oilsands without sacrificing conservation, says speaker Glen Semenchuk of the Cumulative Environmental Management Association, which oversees environmental impacts in the oilsands. The current draft regional plan for the Athabasca suggests that if industry restricted itself to about 14 per cent of the oilsands region at one time, it could preserve the rest of it for nature and still quadruple oilsands production.
While some sensitive species are already in decline, Schneider says, most boreal species are still relatively intact. Industry could preserve those species by putting limits on where it develops. “There’s still opportunity to do something.”