Barbour, Dr. Lee

2014 Finalist: Innovation In Oil Sands Research Sponsored By Syncrude Canada Ltd.

Successfully Closing Lands Disturbed by Oil Sands Mining

When it comes to oil sands development there is a clash between two opposing forces. Development provides economic benefits and a secure Canadian oil supply but doing so comes with significant environmental challenges. Dr. Lee Barbour is inspired by the push and pull of these polarizing forces and his driving motivation is the magnitude of the challenges involved.

“For me the fundamental problem is that you really can’t live isolated in either camp. You can’t simply be pro-industry at the expense of the environment, which industry isn’t, but you also can’t be anti-industry and not think about where we get our economic and energy supply for our country,” Barbour says.

Bridging the Gap

Barbour’s work has been critical in advancing research into the closure of land disturbed by oil sands and mining. Through his extensive research, Barbour is helping return the land to a natural state.

Initially, Barbour focused on the effectiveness of different reclamation covers to restore mining sites into sustainable ecosystems. His research involved “looking at the cover design and reclamation soils to ensure they would store and release sufficient water for productive upland forests to be reestablished,” he explained. Through this research, oil sands developers are able to better return the landscape to an environmentally sustainable state.

Collaborating with Syncrude

Barbour credits Clara Qualizza from Syncrude Canada Ltd. for starting him on this research path. “Clara had a vision for one of the central pieces of our research called Instrumented watersheds,” says Barbour.

Instrumented watersheds bring together multidisciplinary teams to work together on the same site to share data and tackle a single challenge facing industry. This form of research was a novel development that has now been adopted across the industry. “This concept of bringing multiple disciplines in the biological and earth sciences together to work on one site – like having a common play ground for all the kids in the neighbourhood – has been foundational.”

The collaboration with Syncrude has been a great benefit for Barbour’s reclamation research. “They’re not just funding the research, they are excited about the research and want to interact with it,” Barbour says.

Long-term Challenges

Although his research was instrumental in developing oil sands reclamation, Barbour was concerned there was a need to find ways of extending the time and spatial scales for observing water movement through these sites.

“Instrumented watersheds are useful in understanding the processes but they’re very hard to then extend out over many decades of monitoring to ensure the site continues to perform in the ways you expect.”

Barbour’s Industrial Research Chair at the University of Saskatchewan, which is a partnership between the federal government, National Sciences and Engineering Research Council and industry, is focused on the long-term monitoring of these processes. One example of these measurements involves tracking water migration through mine closure landscapes using naturally occurring stable isotopes of water over time.

“Here is a very useful tool to see over decades where water is moving through these landscapes and consequently how these landscapes are interacting to release water back to the environment,” he explains.

These projects are ongoing for years to come and Barbour’s research is ensuring that can continue to track water movement through these reclaimed landscapes. “There may be somebody up at Fort MacMurray a century from now still keeping an eye over some of these landscapes and ensuring they are performing as they were intended.”

Although there is an enormous opportunity for the development of new technologies, there is also a need to train new engineers and scientists to help industry address environmental challenges.

“These are challenges that won’t just be with us for a decade or two. This industry and the resources are so vast that we will need to continue to manage these challenges for many decades.”

For Barbour, the most important reward is educating the next generation of researchers. “What I find really exciting is seeing young men and women that have a similar vision for understanding the value of the resource but also having a passion for the environment.”

With Barbour’s guidance, both industry and the environment will be well served for years to come.