Find out how Suncor is balancing conservation with responsible resource development in the 2013 Report on Sustainability

Efforts to conserve land and biodiversity – Suncor’s 2013 Report on Sustainability

Find out how Suncor is balancing conservation with responsible resource development in the 2013 Report on Sustainability

“We continue to take a lead role in discussions about how to balance conservation of Canada's valuable boreal forest — one of the world's largest intact ecosystems — with responsible resource development.” – Suncor’s 2013 Report on Sustainability

View the latest Report on Sustainability

Land and biodiversity

Suncor recognizes its operations have an impact on our shared environment, including valuable land resources.

Energy development disturbs land — there is no way around that. However, the land is not lost forever. We undertake detailed planning to reclaim and remediate lands affected by development before the first tree is removed or the first shovel hits the ground.

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Oil sands land disturbance and reclamation

Suncor is committed to ultimately returning all lands disturbed by our oil sands mining and in situ operations to a natural state as close to pre-disturbance as possible.

Developing a reclamation plan

Before the construction of a new mine, we develop a conceptual reclamation plan in consultation with local stakeholders and government regulators. We develop plans for land preparation and ultimate reclamation with respect to land impacted by our in situ operations. The Alberta government must approve detailed reclamation plans for all new projects.

Reclamation is a carefully monitored process. In the case of oil sands tailings ponds, reclamation involves two distinct components:

  • transformation of oil sands tailings ponds into solid material that can support vegetation, wildlife and landscape restoration, which includes landform design and soil placement
  • re-vegetation in a way that the reclaimed landscape can support vegetation and wildlife as self-sustaining ecosystems

Read more about our reclamation efforts

Tailings innovation

Suncor has pioneered the research and development of a new technology for drying and solidifying mine tailings that is expected to dramatically accelerate the rate at which fluid tailings ponds can be transformed into solid landscapes suitable for reclamation. The goal of Suncor's process is to reduce our existing inventory of tailings and limit the need for future storage ponds.

Suncor has shared this technology with the six other companies in the Oil Sands Tailing Consortium (OSTC) and participated in 2012 in the Tailings Technology Roadmap and Action Plan project, a major industry/government collaboration to improve tailings management across the entire industry.

Read more about TROTM updates

Restoration

Once solid enough to support vegetation, the next step is to contour the land to allow for proper drainage and a natural appearance. The soil is then seeded with barley, which acts as a nurse crop to protect the young native plants that will soon begin to grow.

Native tree and shrub seedlings are planted, and the soil is fertilized to give the young plants a helping hand. As the trees and shrubs take hold on the reclaimed lands, ongoing scientific monitoring is done to ensure the new forest matures into a healthy, self-sustaining ecosystem.

By the end of 2012, Suncor had planted nearly six million trees on our oil sands site — including 900,000 trees in the previous 12 months alone. All of the trees came from local seed stock which was gathered before the land was disturbed. This ensures that the trees are equipped to withstand regional climate extremes. Areas planted in the 1980s are now seeing young conifer seedlings take root under mature trees — a positive sign of regeneration.

Another indicator of success is the increase in wildlife returning to reclaimed lands. Among the species spotted on Suncor's reclamation sites:

  • sensitive avian species, including green-winged teal, horned grebe, common yellow throat and least fly-catcher
  • coyote
  • grey wolf
  • red fox
  • black bear
  • mule and white-tailed deer
  • snowshoe hare
  • moose

Read more about the Wapisiw Lookout reclamation

Biodiversity

Canada's boreal forest is home to the oil sands. Suncor is committed to being a trusted steward of the land through responsible resource development. We continue to take a lead role in discussions about how to balance conservation of Canada's valuable boreal forest — one of the world's largest intact ecosystems — with responsible resource development.

Suncor is a signatory to the Boreal Forest Conservation Framework — a ground-breaking national conservation vision developed by 20 First Nations, environmental groups and resource companies. 2013 marks the 10th anniversary of this important multi-stakeholder collaboration.

Learn more at the Boreal Forest Conservation Framework website

Read more about the boreal forest action plan

Suncor is working on a number of fronts to minimize our impact in the boreal region:

  • Advanced reclamation techniques at our oil sands mining operations. These include contouring the land for a natural appearance, providing suitable drainage and minimizing erosion by planting native trees, grasses and shrubs. We also made significant progress in 2012 and 2013 on wetland reclamation, including our partnership work with Ducks Unlimited on research into boreal swamp reclamation.
  • Conservation of environmentally sensitive boreal habitats. Work begun by the Alberta Conservation Association (ACA) and supported by the Suncor Energy Foundation led to an inaugural project to protect 480 acres (2 km2) of boreal forest surrounding Winagami Lake in Alberta's Peace Country. Because of the success of this pilot project, Suncor has continued to work with ACA in securing more than 4,900 acres (19.8 km2) of habitat to date. 2012 marked the 10th anniversary of this very productive partnership.
  • Advanced technology to minimize our footprint. In situ bitumen extraction allows Suncor to use only a fraction of the land required for conventional oil sands mining.

Suncor also proactively consults with stakeholders to continually improve on the work we are doing to preserve biodiversity:

  • Suncor regularly seeks input from our Aboriginal neighbours on reclamation initiatives.
  • We are a member of the Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA), a multi-stakeholder group in the regional municipality of Wood Buffalo, to develop and implement management tools to reduce ecosystem disturbance in the region.
  • We consult with other resource companies about how to minimize local impacts. This includes sharing access roads or using land already disturbed by previous development.
  • Suncor is a partner in a project aimed at restoring the woodland caribou herd in the Little Smokey area of west-central Alberta.

Learn more about Aboriginal Relations

Raising the bar: industry collaboration on land and biodiversity

As the oil sands industry grows, it becomes increasingly important to address the cumulative impacts of development on the boreal forest and the wildlife that live there. Since 2009, Suncor has worked with the Oil Sands Leadership Initiative (OSLI), a collaborative network of six companies, to advance several initiatives to reduce the collective footprint of oil sands development and increase the quality of habitat for caribou and other wildlife.

In 2012, land stewardship projects initiated by OSLI transitioned to Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA). Established in March 2012, COSIA brings together 14 companies, responsible for nearly 90% of Canadian oil sands production, to focus on improved performance in four environmental priority areas:

  • land
  • water
  • tailings
  • greenhouse gas emissions

Read more about COSIA

The Landscape Ecological Assessment and Planning (LEAP) tool

COSIA is now overseeing the refinement of a database and modelling tool known as Landscape Ecological Assessment and Planning (LEAP) to better understand how reforestation and reclamation work undertaken today will impact the health of tomorrow’s boreal forest. LEAP uses geospatial data on the location of oil and gas leases, forest types, lakes, watercourses and other pertinent geographic information to target where and how conservation and reclamation efforts can have the greatest desired net impact. It also allows planners to visually project what current areas of reclamation and reforestation will look like 10, 20 and even 50 years down the road.

The LEAP study encompasses some 32,455 square kilometres — an area slightly larger than the country of Belgium — that includes a majority of existing in situ oil sands operations, 342 townships and seven woodland caribou herds. Although the amount of land disturbed by oil and gas operations is a relatively small percentage of the total area, linear disturbances such as seismic lines and pipeline corridors have a relatively higher cumulative impact because of forest fragmentation, which affects the habitat of wildlife, including woodland caribou.

If LEAP indicates a disturbed area will benefit from additional revegetation efforts, decisions will be made about planting those areas with trees, shrubs and other native vegetation. These plantings are then added into the LEAP program to provide a future view of reclamation results.

Read more about LEAP

Reclamation efforts in the Algar region

In 2012, LEAP was used by the project’s founding organization, OSLI, to plan habitat restoration in the Algar region, an area covering 570 square kilometres along the Athabasca River, southeast of Fort McMurray. Although the region has not been the site of heavy industrial and forestry activity, OSLI identified Algar as an area where industry can make a significant difference in reversing forest fragmentation and protecting declining caribou herds — and proceeded with the restoration plan even though none of the lands were on leases held by the OSLI companies.

The first phase of this collaborative plan, now transitioned to COSIA, involved the planting of 45,000 trees in 2012 as part of an effort to reduce fragmentation due to seismic lines and to help restore woodland caribou habitat. This was to be followed by a winter planting program in 2013.

Read more about the restoration of Algar

The Faster Forests program

Another project advanced by OSLI, and now transitioned to COSIA, is the Faster Forests program. It is designed to address forest fragmentation by strategically planting trees in disturbed areas across the oil sands region. In 2012, a bumper crop of 600,000 trees and shrubs were planted, bringing the total number of trees and shrubs planted since 2009 to 1.6 million.

Planting shrubs native to the area became a much bigger focus of the Faster Forests program in 2012. These shrubs will help tree seedlings grow healthier, faster and with less competition for nutrients and water from fast-growing grasses. The result: greater ecological integrity and biodiversity. Berry-bearing shrubs such as blueberry and saskatoons are important to Aboriginal communities and also supply food for wildlife.

Read more about the Faster Forest program

Wildlife and bird monitoring

Suncor pays close attention to how our operations affect the environment, especially wildlife and birds. In partnership with a variety of organizations, Suncor invests in research, monitoring and conservation activities. This includes habitat restoration for caribou along our North Cabin natural gas pipeline, as well as post-construction avian monitoring projects and bat mortality studies at our wind farms. Suncor follows an integrated approach to landscape management and wildlife protection, and we're also open to modifying our plans to help reduce impacts to wildlife.

The wildlife management program

Wildlife movements on Suncor’s oil sands mine leases in the Wood Buffalo region are closely monitored and recorded. A wildlife incident is defined as any observation of wildlife where there was a risk to the animal, or where a human/wildlife interaction occurred. The wildlife management program consists of:

  • responding to incidents of wildlife activity on site
  • managing site conditions
  • setting live traps and relocating wildlife to natural areas outside the lease site when necessary

This effort is achieved by conducting ongoing communication and collaboration with the Alberta Sustainable Resource Department's local Fish & Wildlife office.

Investigation of wildlife incidents is valuable in locating and understanding the cause of the occurrence. A majority of incidents can be attributed to a food source, mainly in the form of garbage, where wildlife is at risk of habituation. It is the management of food sources that has the most impact on reducing wildlife incidents. For example, to minimize the attractiveness of areas to bears, bear-proof waste containers have been installed. In addition, Suncor has marked road sections known to have frequent wildlife crossings with signs.

The bird deterrent program

Suncor also operates a bird deterrent program designed to minimize the impact on birds due to contact with tailings ponds or other operational ponds. The program includes the operation of bird deterrent systems such as bird radar-activated deterrent devices and scare cannons. Suncor closely monitors the effectiveness of these deterrence systems and attends to any oiled or injured bird in consultation with Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development Fish & Wildlife.

A total of 89 birds died on Suncor oil sands mine leases in 2012, up from 61 in 2011 (as reported in the 2012 Reclamation Progress Tracking Report).

While deterring wildlife from its active operations, Suncor incorporates a number of wildlife habitat enhancement techniques to encourage wildlife on its reclaimed sites. For example, at Wapisiw Lookout, the first tailings pond reclaimed in the oil sands region, techniques included:

  • coarse woody debris, wood piles and rock piles to provide dens for small mammals
  • snag or wildlife tree installations to provide raptor perches and habitat for woodpeckers and flickers
  • bird and bat box installations to encourage the return of birds and bats
  • incorporation of a small wetland into the reclamation providing habitat and food for a number of different species

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