Since Suncor opened Canada's first oil sands mine in 1967, our operations have disturbed approximately 17,161 hectares of land. As of the end of 2009, the company had reclaimed approximately 1,182 hectares, or about 6.9% of the total land
disturbance to date.
Reclamation takes place once the disturbed land is no longer part of active operations. With the introduction of Suncor’s new TROTM (Tailings Reduction Operations) process, we expect to see more land available for reclamation
more quickly. Suncor is targeting a 100% increase
in land area reclaimed by 2015.
Oil sands reclamation techniques are constantly evolving and improving. In 2009, Suncor continued to make significant strides in how quickly—and how well—it reclaims disturbed lands.
Mining oil sands ore requires digging about 50 meters below the surface. The soil that's removed is known as overburden and has to be stored in an overburden storage area, usually situated close to the mine site. Once the overburden is removed and the ore extracted, a pit is created. These pits are often filled back in with liquid tailings from the extraction process.
In the past, there has been a lag time of many years between when overburden was removed and reclamation could begin. Suncor is increasingly aiming to reclaim disturbed lands as they are created. Mine Dump 5, an overburden storage area in Suncor's Millennium Mine, is an example of what's known as progressive reclamation.
As soon as the 160-hectare Mine Dump 5 was created in 2008, Suncor began reclaiming it. Enough progress was made that topsoil was placed on the overburden and seeded with the usual barley nurse crop by the spring of 2009. Following fertilization, tree planting began a few months later.
Suncor’s new TROTM strategy, which we expect to begin implementing on a commercial scale in 2010 subject to regulatory approval, will further bolster the cause of progressive reclamation. Suncor’s nine active tailings ponds account for 30 % of the disturbed land Suncor is currently working to reclaim. So accelerating the pace at which liquid mine tailings are transformed into solid, reclaimable surfaces is critical to resolving our overall oil sands reclamation challenge.
The technologies Suncor has researched and developed for drying mine tailings will allow us to significantly reduce our existing tailings inventory, freeing up additional lands for reclamation. Our TROTM process will also reduce or eliminate the need for future tailings ponds—removing another key obstacle to progressive oil sands reclamation.
As we enter a new era in mine reclamation, we are also marking a significant industry milestone from the era just past. In September 2010, Suncor is to become the first oil sands company to have a tailings pond with a trafficable surface that has progressive reclamation underway. The plan is to ultimately transform the company’s 220-hectare Pond 1, established in the 1960s, into mixed wood forest and a small wetland capable of supporting a variety of plants and wildlife.
While the 2010 milestone will not result in an official reclamation certificate from the Alberta government, Suncor is working to secure a progressive reclamation acknowledgment. The Pond 1 area is also to be re-named to mark this significant accomplishment.
Watch a video where employees talk about reclaiming Pond 1
The Certification Issue
Questions have been raised about why so few of the lands described by the oil sands industry as “reclaimed” have been certified as such by government regulators. Part of the answer is that under the current regulations companies can only apply for a reclamation certificate when the lands in question are fully functioning ecosystems—and that can take many years to achieve. For example, even when surface reclamation of Suncor's Pond 1 is well underway in 2010, and after all the trees are planted, it will take at least another 15 years to reach the “free-to-grow” standard required for certification.
Even when oil sands reclamation has run its full course, there are additional reasons why industry is reluctant to seek certification under the current regulations. Reclaimed lands that have been certified revert to Crown ownership and can be accessed by the public. Since most of the reclaimed land is adjacent to, or entirely within ongoing operating areas, granting public access to such lands would create a concern for public safety.
Land Disturbance and In-Situ Technology
As the oil sands industry grows, the ratio of land being disturbed by development is expected to decline. That's because more of the oil will be extracted using in-situ technology to retrieve bitumen buried too deep to be reached by mining. In-situ operations disturb only 15% of the land required for traditional mining operations and do not produce tailings ponds.
While it's true that lands surrounding in-situ facilities are affected by a network of roads, seismic lines, power corridors and pipelines, many of these impacts can be mitigated through technological innovation and better land management. Suncor helped pioneer equipment to build low-impact seismic lines that significantly reduced the amount of land disturbed by natural gas, in situ and pipeline development. We've also entered into agreements to share best practices and infrastructure with industry peers and to provide conservation offsets for boreal forest habitat impacted by development.
Other Land Disturbance Challenges
As a matter of course, Suncor undertakes active remediation at its downstream retail sites operated under the Petro-Canada, Sunoco and Phillips66 brands. Remediation is done in conjunction with upgrades to facilities and tanks at existing operations and at sites slated for closure.
Active remediation is also conducted at Suncor’s conventional oil and gas sites impacted by historical activities. Where remediation has been completed, the next phase is reclamation, including the establishment of proper vegetation. Reclamation certificates are issued on sites that have been returned to equivalent pre-disturbance land capability.