Suncor is committed to returning all lands disturbed to a self-sustaining, boreal forest ecosystem, read more:

Suncor is committed to returning all lands disturbed to a self-sustaining, boreal forest ecosystem, read more:

Suncor is committed to returning all lands disturbed to a self-sustaining, boreal forest ecosystem, read more:

Suncor is committed to returning all lands disturbed to a self-sustaining, boreal forest ecosystem, read more:

View the latest Report on Sustainability

Suncor employees at the Nikanotee Fen, an environmental reclamation initiative

Reclamation

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Wherever our developments disturb land we pursue progressive reclamation efforts, including reclaiming tailings ponds.

Since Suncor opened Canada’s first oil sands mine in 1967, our oil sands operations have disturbed approximately 22,157 hectares of land. Land reclamation takes place once the disturbed land is no longer part of active operations.  As of the end of 2015, the company had reclaimed about 10% of the total land disturbance to date.

Suncor land use at oil sands

We targeted a 100% increase in land area reclaimed by 2015 - we surpassed our target by reclaiming 3,730 hectares of oil sands in situ and mine disturbed lands or achieving a 176% increase relative to the 2007 baseline.

Read more about our environmental performance goals

Improving reclamation techniques and accelerating the rate at which land is reclaimed are two key ways we strive to balance responsible resource development with the need to preserve a healthy environment for future generations.
We are committed to ultimately returning all lands disturbed by our oil sands mining and in situ operations to a self-sustaining boreal forest ecosystem native to the area. Our efforts have led to milestones already being reached in both tailings pond and wetland reclamation, including;

  • In 2010, Suncor became the first oil sands company to reclaim a tailings pond to a trafficable surface or 220 hectares watershed supporting a mixed wood forest, a network of streams and a marsh wetland;
  • In 2011, Suncor joined 12 companies to form Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, (COSIA), to accelerate environmental performance environment, including in the Land Environmental Performance Area;
  • By September 2011, 5 million trees were planted at Base Plant;
  • In 2012, Suncor set a new planting record for planting the most trees, shrub and aquatic plants in a single season - 694,533 seedlings;
  • In 2012, research results prompted us to use compostable tea bags in reclamation efforts in order to directly promote the growth of seedlings;
  • In 2013, Suncor became one of the first companies in the world to complete reconstruction of a fen peatland watershed.
  • In 2015, Suncor planted more than 230 hectares in one season, exceeding our record for largest area reclaimed in one year.
  • By the end of 2015, Suncor had planted more than 7.9 million trees, shrubs and aquatic plants on our oil sands site – including 692,808 trees in the previous year alone.

Here are some details on Suncor’s reclamation procedures and performance in 2015:

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Progressive reclamation: A multi-phase process

Developing a reclamation plan

Before constructing a new mine, we develop a reclamation plan in consultation with local stakeholders and government regulators. We also develop conservation and reclamation plans with respect to land disturbed by our in situ operations. The Alberta government must approve reclamation plans for all new projects.

Mining oil sands requires digging about 50 metres below the surface, creating a pit. The removed soil is known as overburden and is stored close to the mine site. These pits are often filled in with liquid tailings from the extraction process.

In the past, there was a lag time of many years between when overburden was removed and land reclamation could begin. Today, we work to reclaim disturbed lands shortly after they are created, a process known as progressive reclamation. In the case of oil sands tailings ponds, reclamation involves two distinct components:

  • transformation of the tailings ponds into a solid, soil-capped deposit that can be re-vegetated and reclaimed
  • re-vegetation in a way that the reclaimed landscape can support native boreal vegetation and wildlife as self-sustaining ecosystems

Collaborating on tailings technologies

As a company committed to accelerating environmental performance improvements, Suncor has shared details around our tailings management work with fellow members of Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA). In return, we have gained access to technologies that other member companies are using to manage existing tailings ponds.

By sharing research, experience, expertise and financial commitments, we are able to investigate new tailings technologies at a more rapid pace. We expect this will result in improved tailings management now and at future oil sands mine sites.

Learn more about COSIA’s tailings environmental priority area

Read more about our tailings management

Returning the land to a self-sustaining boreal ecosystem

Once solid enough to support vegetation, the next step is to contour the land to allow for proper drainage and a natural appearance. The landform is then capped with soil and erosion-prone areas are seeded with oats or native bunch grasses.

Native tree, shrub and aquatic seedlings are planted, and the soil is fertilized directly at the seedling roots to give the young plants help during early development years. As the trees, shrubs and aquatic plants take hold on the reclaimed lands, ongoing scientific monitoring is done to ensure the new forest and wetlands mature into a healthy, self-sustaining ecosystem.

By the end of 2015, Suncor had planted more than 7.9 million trees, shrubs and aquatic plants on our oil sands site — including 692,808 trees in the previous year alone.

All of the trees came from local seed, which was gathered from the surrounding natural areas adjacent to operations, or on the undisturbed parts of our leases. This ensures 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. The species spotted on our reclamation sites include:

  • sensitive avian species, including green-winged teal, horned grebe, common yellow throat and least fly-catcher
  • coyote
  • grey wolf
  • red fox
  • mule deer and white-tailed deer
  • snowshoe hare
  • moose
  • sensitive amphibian species, such as the Canadian toad
  • muskrat
  • otter
  • beaver
  • lynx

Learn about our biodiversity initiatives

2015 Progress on Land Reclamation

To achieve our reclamation goal established in 2009 to increase land reclamation to 100% by 2015 we aimed to significantly increase our yearly reclamation performance.

During 2015, Oil Sands reclaimed overburden areas within the Millennium, Steepbank and North Steepbank Extension (NSE) Mines to marsh wetland featuring aquatic and riparian vegetation, white spruce and aspen mixed wood forest, and black spruce and jack pine forest. Overburden areas in the Steepbank Mine were also reclaimed to white spruce and aspen mixed wood forest. Finally, aquatic vegetation was added to the NSE Compensation Lake to enhance shoreline and riparian complexity and biodiversity for fish utilization. During mine reclamation, over 690,000 trees, shrubs and aquatic plants were planted in these areas, thereby increasing the total amount to 7.8 million planted seedlings.

Suncor continues to reclaim even more new landforms that will further contribute to reclamation pace now and in the future. This includes coke-capping of consolidated tails underway at Pond 5 and the accelerated tailings dewatering (e.g. TRO process) currently being implemented.

Certification of reclaimed lands: A complex issue

Some question 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 – that can take many years to achieve.

For example, even after the completion of surface reclamation and re-vegetation at Wapisiw Lookout in 2010, it will take at least a decade for the seedlings to become tall forest and to confirm the area is self-sustaining and reflective of the locally common boreal forest.

This helps explain why some industry observers are able to assert that, to date, only 0.2% of the land disturbed by oil sands development has been certified as reclaimed by the Alberta government. While technically accurate, the statement is incomplete.

A more complete story would give operators some credit for achieving intermediate stages on the way to reclamation. According to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, approximately 10% of the area disturbed by oil sands mining since operations began in the 1960s has been reclaimed by industry.

It is also worth noting the oil sands industry is relatively young, so it is not surprising that only a small part of the total production area has yet to be reclaimed. As mines mature, reclamation is likely to accelerate.

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. Lands certified as reclaimed 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 could create a concern for public safety.

A transparent reclamation reporting system

The Province of Alberta has implemented a reclamation reporting system that gives stakeholders a clear understanding of the progress being made along every step of the reclamation process. The Oil Sands Information Portal is a one-window source for information; the portal has both an interactive map display and a data library.

Reclamation progress is reported with eight key milestones:

  • cleared
  • disturbed
  • ready for reclamation
  • soils placed – terrestrial, wetlands and aquatics
  • temporary reclamation – terrestrial
  • permanent reclamation – terrestrial
  • permanent reclamation – wetlands and aquatics
  • certified

The system is transparent to the public, with reclamation data available through an interactive, map-based website.

In situ land disturbance

As the oil sands industry grows, the ratio of land being disturbed by development is expected to decline. That is because reserves that underlie approximately 97% of Canada’s oil sands surface area are recoverable using in situ (drilling) technology, which is similar to conventional oil production. In situ operations disturb only about 15% of the land required for traditional mining operations and do not produce tailings ponds.

But in situ oil sands projects, along with oil and gas exploration, forestry and other industrial activities, do have an impact. The associated roads, seismic lines, power corridors and pipelines leave linear paths that cause forest fragmentation, which negatively impacts wildlife habitat.

In situ oil sands exploration requires the creation of temporary drilling pads to effectively explore and delineate bitumen deposits. In order to address the historical Oil Sands Exploration (OSE) footprint, in 2012, we undertook a focused effort to identify the persisting factors at individual sites that were preventing corresponding OSE programs from receiving reclamation certification. These efforts paid dividends with over 162 hectares of reclaimed lands from 140 OSE wells attaining reclamation certification that year.

As part of COSIA, we are participating in several projects to address the issue of forest fragmentation. These include:

  • The Faster Forests Program, which in 2015 saw approximately 201,643 trees and shrubs strategically planted in disturbed areas across the oil sands region. Since 2009, 3.3 million trees and shrub have been planted cumulatively by this program alone.

The Algar Restoration Plan, which in 2015 saw 33,900 trees planted in 177 kilometers of linear disturbance southeast of Fort McMurray. Cumulatively since 2012, 161,700 trees have been planted over 387 linear kilometers. These tree plantings are taking place outside of actual license areas as part of an effort to reduce the regional impact of seismic lines and restore woodland caribou habitat.

Other land disturbance challenges

As a matter of course, we undertake remediation at our downstream retail sites operated under the Petro-Canada, Shell and ExxonMobil brands. Remediation is done in conjunction with upgrades to facilities and tanks at existing operations and at sites slated for closure.

Read more about Shell and ExxonMobil brands on suncor.com

Remediation is also conducted at our conventional oil and natural 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.

Reclamation research and monitoring

Suncor participates in a number of ongoing research and monitoring projects that are helping us understand the impact of development on the boreal forest and the steps we can take to improve reclamation designs and minimize habitat disturbance.

Among these are:

  • Projects to support native shrub and wetland species that are an ecologically and culturally important component of boreal forest ecosystems.
    • The Improving Seed Longevity of Native Shrubs program identifies optimal storage conditions for native shrub seed so a steady supply for reclamation will be possible.
    • The Native Plant Establishment program determines how best to collect and prepare seed, and how to establish dozens of native shrub and wetland plants in reclaimed sites.
    • The Seed Delivery Systems Research (SEEDs) program is working with a northern Alberta nursery and investigating an alternative revegetation technique, development of seed-containing pucks. The concept is expected to improve planting efficiency during reclamation, especially for hard to access locations, such as remote in situ linear corridors.
  • Projects to support the successful establishment of tree species, which can be limited by low nutrient and water availability, soil compaction and competition from ground cover.
    • The Industrial Research Chair in Forest Land Reclamation is expanding its early success in better understanding forest canopy development and working to improve tree growth during forest stand initiation and development. The program is also developing recommendations for establishing more spatially diverse site conditions and forest communities.
    • One program is focused on determining the right type and amount of nutrients (e.g., phosphorus) to add while the seedlings are produced in the greenhouse to improve early establishment, growth and land reclamation success.


Part of a larger, continent-wide initiative, the Boreal Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship program is advancing our understanding of avian population dynamics and diversity in reclaimed and disturbed habitats in the Athabasca Oil Sands region. Through ongoing monitoring, the program is evaluating disturbance effects on avian habitat quality and assessing reclamation designs to help guide our reclamation work.

The Wildlife Habitat Effectiveness and Connectivity program advanced our understanding of the effects of mine activities on wildlife population dynamics. Through research and monitoring, the program evaluated the function of undisturbed or reclaimed buffers adjacent to mines and the buffers’ effects on wildlife dispersion, connectivity and predator/prey interactions.

Human health and wildlife risk assessment research and monitoring continue in 2015 to ensure safe incorporation of materials in reclamation and closure at Suncor’s mining and in situ projects. Results are shared with COSIA to ensure we are not only accelerating Suncor’s environmental performance, but improving results across the entire oil sands region.

* Reclaimed lands have not been certified as such by government regulators. For further details on what we mean by reclaimed, see the legal advisories.

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