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Thanks to Oil Sands Mining, Alberta's Wetlands Will Soon be Gone

It's been a "big couple of weeks": for wetlands, one of Earth's most important ecosystems when it comes to keeping our waterways healthy, reducing carbon emissions, and overall keeping our...
March 12, 2012, 6:10pm

It’s been a big couple of weeks for wetlands, one of Earth’s most important ecosystems when it comes to keeping our waterways healthy, reducing carbon emissions, and overall keeping our environment stable so us humans can continue to exist. But recent statistics regarding the survival of Alberta’s wetlands following years of oil sands mining have recently surfaced. And folks, it doesn’t look good.

For decades, Alberta, Canada has been a hotspot for oilsands mining (and recently controversy surrounding bear populations), and while the mining sites have gradually stripped and destroyed most of the fens, marshes and bogs in the area, mining companies always promised that the wetlands would be eventually be restored once the sites had been depleted. They’ve since been releasing ads with fuzzy pictures and catchphrases like, “Where you’d never know there’d been a mine in the first place.” Aw.

This types of feel-good videos are common in the oil sands debate, but they ignore the real costs of destroying wetlands just to replant them.

Not surprisingly a study recently released by researchers Rebecca C. Rooney, Suzanne E. Bayley, and David W. Schindler would like to beg to differ, calculating that based on mining companies’ outlines of pre-existing conditions and ecological diversity, only about 65% of wetlands can be expected to eventually recover, and thats with the decades of development that these ecosystems require.

“It makes us angry because they will put some kind of plants back on the landscape, but it will not look the way it was and it will not have the same type of functions,” Bayley recently told the Canadian Press. Indeed, another study conducted in 2011 by Bayley and Rooney of restored wetlands in oilsands mining areas found significantly lower levels of biodiversity than would be expected in pre-mining systems.


Ok, so here’s where this becomes problematic for us.

Wetlands are some of the best carbon vacuums in the world, with this study calculating that Alberta’s degraded wetlands will have lost around 7,000 tons of carbon-sequestration ability per year. That’s due to the proposed restoration process following oil sand mining convertingtcarbon-dense peatlands into forested land. According to the study, peatland in mined areas will decrease by more than 65%, which will lead to the release of as much at 47 million tons of stored carbon, a number that the restored lands will have a harder time making up. So even while oil sand miners have talked up their ability to restore the land, the land won’t be the same, and the carbon deficit will perhaps never be made up.

Photograph courtesy of Jeff McIntosh / THE CANADIAN PRESS