Failing to account for climate change in mining land reclamation may cost billions

Monday, October 26, 2015

A new paper by University of Waterloo researchers in Nature Climate Change warns that not accounting for climate change in ecological reclamation projects could cost industry and government billions in future cleanup costs.

River and forest landscape in the Yukon. The paper by researchers Rebecca Rooney, Derek Robinson and Rich Petrone outlines a six-step process to improve success rates and control mine closure costs; reconciling government-mandated mine closing procedures with long-term climate projections.

“Reclamation plans ignoring climate change can be a big liability,” said Rooney, a professor of Biology in the Faculty of Science “Most reclamation plans assume the environment, hydrological cycle and climate remain the same over time. But we have hard evidence suggesting that’s not true. Climate change is happening much faster than anyone thought.”

Under Alberta’s Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act of 1993, oil sands mining companies are required to return natural areas to a natural state once a mine closes. They must submit a reclamation plan and set aside an environmental deposit as part of the permitting process.

Mega projects like oils sands extraction, mountain-top removal and open-pit diamond mines are so large, they can take several decades, sometimes a hundred years, from opening to closure. Over these time spans, habitats like the boreal forests are predicted to shrink in Alberta, even under the most optimistic climate scenarios.

“Significant advances have been made in the science of reclamation and the criteria with which we evaluate such systems; however, the big question remains as to how either of these will deal with non-stationarity in climate”, said Petrone.

“We want to encourage a more pragmatic approach,” said Rooney, who is also a member of the Water Institute. The researchers maintain their findings aren’t just important for mining companies, but also government regulators and the public. If these reclaimed landscapes fail, the public could be left with a staggering environmental problem covering hundreds of square kilometres across Canada and billions in additional costs.

Regulators currently do not require mining companies to incorporate predictive modeling into reclamation plans, nor do they consider proposals to replace habitats with anything other than the current types of vegetation. The idea that new landscapes may be more sustainable in the long term is how Rooney pulled Robinson and Petrone, both researchers in the Department of Geography and Environmental Management, into the project.

“We measure and compare the composition and configuration of habitats in different natural regions and Petrone is estimates how these changes in habitat pattern under different climate scenarios affect hydrological processes. It’s Essential for reclamation success,” said Robinson.

The six-step process proposed by Rooney and colleagues uses climate modeling, hydrologic modeling, bioclimate classification, and landscape and habitat modeling to provide planners with more adaptable closure designs that meet the law

“We want to target a climate envelope and hedge our bets on the future. If an area is located in a transition zone, it could be better off reclaiming that to be parkland forest than boreal so it will be more capable of adapting as [climate] change continues,” said Rooney.

More research in this area is needed as the predicted landscapes may have an additional effect on water availability for the region. Regional climate models will also have to be continually refined to be useful.