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The Athabasca oil sands deposit is situated within a region known as the boreal forest, one of the world’s largest intact ecosystems. The interconnected forests and lakes provide habitat for a wide diversity of wildlife, including migratory birds, caribou, bears and wolves. In particular, the McClelland Lake Wetlands Complex is home to rich and diverse plant and animal life. It’s also connected to the Fort Hills mine.

Can industry and nature co-exist? We believe they can. Our commitment is to:sustain the environmental integrity of the patterned part of the fen, leave as small an environmental footprint as reasonably practical on the acres we develop, and provide offsets to compensate for areas we permanently impact. Our environmental protection plan will help this be the case. We do not intend to start any operations in the fen complex until the mining and protection plan is completed and approved.

Protecting the Fen: We’re up for the Challenge

The McClelland Lake Wetlands Complex (MLWC) is a patterned fen that constitutes ridges (strings) and marshy pools (flarks) that extend into the Fort Hills mining area (upper fen) and continue on to the shores of McClelland Lake (lower fen). The unique challenge at Fort Hills is to mine the oil sands under the upper fen while maintaining the ridges, pools, flora and fauna of the lower fen. Since water is vital for any wetland, we’ve begun a comprehensive monitoring program to track water flows through the ground into the fen. A task group of regulators, First Nations and other stakeholders (the MLWC Sustainability Committee) have joined us to oversee research conducted by the University of Alberta. The upper fen’s watershed is not expected to be impacted by mining for at least 10 years, but we’re getting a head start — monitoring animals and plants, and transplanting rare species so that we may help preserve the ecological integrity of this important fen.

With the understanding accrued over five plus years of intensive water, vegetation, bird and wildlife monitoring, we will be able to understand the workings of the McClelland Lake fen. Employing the resources of the MLWC Sustainability Committee, we expect to develop a comprehensive sustainability plan to ensure the integrity of the fen through the mining phase of the Fort Hills project; and furthermore, to develop a closure plan so that the MLWC will be able to function long after Fort Hills has completed mining.

Partnering with Stakeholders

As part of the MLWC Sustainability Committee - along with representatives from government, the Aboriginal communities, local trapline holders and the environmental groups - we ensure that the Fort Hills mine adheres to best practice environmental and reclamation standards. We have committed to more than 100 environmental compliance conditions set forth by the Alberta Energy Resources and Conservation Board (ERCB) and Alberta Environment (AENV).

Reclamation through Traditional Knowledge and New Technology

Ultimately, our goal is to reclaim the land back to its original capacity or better, and we will do this progressively through the life of the project. In our opinion, the best reclamation plan is one that blends contemporary science with generations’ worth of traditional knowledge. So, we’ve invited representatives from the Fort McKay, Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree First Nations’ communities to participate.

Not only are we exchanging traditional and technical information, we are also identifying long-term reclamation services needed. Elders are encouraged to take this information back to their communities so they can build capacity to benefit from the related economic opportunities.

We are also participating in and learning from reclamation research with existing oil sands operators. This project in particular has reclaimed 4,600 hectares of land. This tailing sand de-watering area will soon house native trees, shrubs important to local stakeholders, and grasses for erosion control as wetlands, coulees and lakes develop.

Because the Fort Hills mine will impact fish in Fort Creek, a lake will be constructed to compensate, according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans “no net loss” policy. According to the plans, the lake will be approximately 15 hectares and is expected to exceed all habitat compensation requirements. Several varieties of fish are expected to be relocated into the lake. Petro-Canada Oil Sands Inc. is maintaining open and transparent communication with regulators and stakeholders about lake construction and monitoring.

Tailings Management

Petro-Canada’s current oil sands operations do not include mining and, therefore, do not produce tailings. Petro-Canada Oil Sands Inc. (PCOSI), operator of the Fort Hills project, recognizes that tailings are a problem and, as part of our Fort Hills environmental protection plan, plans to take specific actions and employ technology to help us responsibly manage fine tailings.

Tailings are a by-product of the oil sands mining extraction process. The contents, naturally found in oil sands deposits, contain sands, clays, silts and residue bitumen as well as higher than naturally occurring levels of naphthenic acids. The bitumen extraction process separates tailings into different types: coarse sand tailings, which are comprised of relatively large particles of sand; and fine tailings, which contain clays and silts that tend to become suspended in water rather than settle out. Fine tailings represent a unique problem: they retain a yogurt-like consistency no matter how long you wait for them to settle — fine tailings that reach this steady state are called “mature fine tailings.”

As part of the Fort Hills environmental protection plan, PCOSI plans to take specific actions and employ technology to help responsibly manage fine tailings.

Specific plans to manage tailings include:

  • Separate storage of fine tails so they can be subsequently mixed back with coarse sand for reclamation of mined areas instead of remaining in large settling ponds
  • The use of second-generation Paraffinic technology for bitumen cleanup that reduces toxic contaminants passing to the tailings pond and reduces air emissions
  • By locating our upgrader away from the mine site, the toxicity of material going into our tailings ponds is reduced
  • An active tailings management scheme that will address fine tailings at the time they are produced (rather than years later) and incorporate them into reclaimable areas as quickly as practicable

PCOSI’s three areas of current and future focus are:

  • to scale up the Non-Segregated Tailings (NST) successes on a laboratory scale to a production basis
  • to maximize warm water recovery and fines thickening for extraction and froth treatment tailings
  • to investigate fluid tailings reduction technology

On February 3, 2009, the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) issued a directive to the oil sands industry. With it come new industry-wide criteria for managing oil sands tailings (waste from oil sands extraction, including water, sand, silt, clay and residual bitumen), and specific enforcement actions if the targets are not met.

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