Hydrocarbon extraction and exploitation is a global, trillion-dollar industry. However, for decades it has also been known that fossil fuel usage is environmentally detrimental; the burning of hydrocarbons results in climate change, and environmental damage during extraction and transport can also occur. Substantial global efforts into mitigating this environmental disruption are underway. The global petroleum industry is moving more and more into exploiting unconventional oil reserves, such as oil sands and shale oil. The Albertan oil sands are one example of unconventional oil reserves; this mixture of sand and heavy bitumen lying under the boreal forest of Northern Alberta represent one of the world’s largest hydrocarbon reserves, but extraction also requires the disturbance of a delicate northern ecosystem. Considerable effort is being made by various stakeholders to mitigate environmental impact and reclaim anthropogenically disturbed environments associated with oil sand extraction. In this review, we discuss the eukaryotic microbial communities associated with the boreal ecosystem and how this is affected by hydrocarbon extraction, with a particular emphasis on the reclamation of tailings ponds, where oil sands extraction waste is stored. Microbial eukaryotes, or protists, are an essential part of every global ecosystem, but our understanding of how they affect reclamation is limited due to our fledgling understanding of these organisms in anthropogenically hydrocarbon-associated environments and the difficulties of studying them. We advocate for an environmental DNA sequencing-based approach to determine the microbial communities of oil sands associated environments, and the importance of studying the heterotrophic components of these environments to gain a full understanding of how these environments operate and thus how they can be integrated with the natural watersheds of the region.
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