Oil sands land reclamation

Reclamation is the process of attempting to return land used for oil sands mining or tailings storage back to its original, natural state. The goal behind reclamation is to "return land back to nature". Disturbances that are a result of oil sands mining have significant impacts on the land, and reclamation is one way to mediate this impact.[1] This page will focus on how oil sands land reclamation is done in the province of Alberta, in Canada.

Reclamation for open pit mines can be difficult simply because of the large surface area that is disturbed in these operations. Once an area is no longer valid for mining activities, it is filled (if needed) and contoured for drainage. After this, the topsoil is replaced and vegetation is planted. Soil and vegetation are assessed frequently to monitor their health.[2] Remediation of tailings ponds is an important but challenging part of the reclamation process.

Reclamation for an in situ well is much more straightforward than with an open pit mine. Once the well is decommissioned it can take about six years to fully reclaim the land. To reclaim the land, the well must be capped and the equipment removed. The soil must be replaced and vegetation replanted, in addition to cleaning up any contaminants that could remain from the well. The reclamation process includes monitoring, seeding, fertilizing, tree planting, seed collecting, topsoil salvaging and replacing, and landform creation and contouring.[2] One benefit of in situ mining is that it disturbs much less land than surface mining efforts. In situ's land disturbance is only 10-15% of a similar sized mining operation and does not produce tailings ponds.[1]

Reclamation Efforts

Attempts to reclaim the land disturbed by oil sands mining has become more of a focus recently. Although efforts are being made, much of the area disturbed is not certified as reclaimed by the government. Reclamation is a complicated process and regulations are constantly developing and changing as environmental understanding improves. There are several types of reclamation statuses: ready for reclamation, soil placed, temporary reclaimed land, permanent reclaimed land, and certified reclaimed land.[3]

Ready for reclamation and soil placed are the initial steps of the reclamation process. "Ready for reclamation" means that mining is finished in that are and land restoration can begin. "Soil placed" means that the materials needed to reclaim the area have been moved to the appropriate locations. This refers primarily to overburden - soil, rock, and other organic substances that need time to settle once placed.[3]

Temporary reclaimed land has been re-vegetated with grass for the purpose of erosion control, and are not truly reclaimed. They exist essentially to prevent the land from washing away as they may see future disturbance.[3]

Permanently reclaimed land includes areas where land design, soil placement, and revegetation are complete. It can many years for the land to become permanently reclaimed as ecosystems need time to establish themselves. During this time, the land, vegetation, water bodies, and animals must be monitored.[3]

Certified reclaimed land is approved by the government as reclaimed and it is no longer the responsibility of the mining company to monitor and care for it. This land is returned to the government as Crown land (most mining companies "rent" their land from the government).[3]

Interactive Map

It can be beneficial to understand the comparative size of all currently used land and reclaimed land. Below is a labelled, interactive map showing the mining pits, tailings ponds, some reclaimed area, and the Athabasca River. Take a note of the scale on the bottom right-hand side of the map (this will change when zooming in and out, but gives an idea of the size of mines and tailings ponds).

The province of Alberta also has a map here.

For Further Reading


  1. 1.0 1.1 Natural Resources Canada. "Oil Sands: Land Use and Reclamation" (Accessed Oct.25, 2018). [Online]. Available: https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/energy/publications/18740
  2. 2.0 2.1 Canada's Oil Sands. Land Reclamation (Accessed Oct 25, 2018). [Online]. Available: https://www.canadasoilsands.ca/en/explore-topics/land-reclamation
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Alberta Environment and Parks. "Oil Sands Mine Reclamation and Disturbance Tracking by Year" (Accessed Oct. 26, 2018) [Online]. Available: http://osip.alberta.ca/library/Dataset/Details/27

Authors and Editors

Jordan Hanania, Ashley Sheardown, Kailyn Stenhouse, Jason Donev
Last updated: January 4, 2019
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