Yesterday IPolitics reported that Ottawa will no longer require environmental assessments for in situ oilsands mining in Alberta.
This is a very big decision because over 80% of total oil sands reserves in Northern Alberta lie in deposits too deep to be reached by surface mining. Alberta Oilsands Inc states: “In situ oil sands production means extracting bitumen from underground by drilling wells into the reservoir, as with conventional oil and natural gas production. This distinguishes in situ recovery from surface mining, which requires removing topsoil and other overburden and creating a large open pit mining area.”
Long story short: there will be no more massively denuded landscape shots of the Edward Burtynsky type.
The above definition doesn’t do justice to the complexity of in situ oilsands, so here is a sanitized video for children (no kidding – it’s of interest in itself as an educational exercise) that introduces just a bit more, followed by some more detailed explanations.
Given the large amount of bitumen that will be recovered via in situ mining there are a number of concerns about groundwater, water use, and water quality. In 2011, Water Matters put out a really good report on in situ mining and groundwater in Alberta that you can get here titled, “Drilling down: Groundwater risks imposed by in situ oil sands development”. In that report they detail more of the technical issues, such as the superheated steam required to liquefy bitumen and the interconnected hydrological and ecological systems of Northern Alberta.
The Pembina Institute also put out this primer on in situ development here (pdf download) with some helpful facts assembled.