An update on our oil sands reclamation innovations and progress – Suncor’s 2013 Report on Sustainability

Progress on oil sands reclamation – Suncor’s 2013 Report on Sustainability

An update on Suncor’s evolving and improving oil sands reclamation techniques – 2013 Report on Sustainability

Get the full update on Suncor’s land reclamation innovations and progress in the 2013 Report on Sustainability

View the latest Report on Sustainability


Since Suncor opened Canada's first oil sands mine in 1967, our oil sands operations have disturbed approximately 21,303 hectares of land. As of the end of 2012, the company had reclaimed* approximately 1,542 hectares, or about 7% of the total land disturbance to date.

Land reclamation takes place once the disturbed land is no longer part of active operations. With the introduction of Suncor's TROTM process, we expect to see land available for oil sands reclamation more quickly. Suncor is targeting a 100% increase in land area reclaimed* by 2015 (as compared to 2007).

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

Land Use at Oil Sands

(1) Reduction in 2009 land disturbed is a result of the removal of In Situ data.

(2) Following Alberta Environment & Sustainable Resource Development’s (AESRD) issuance of standards for Geographic Information Systems (GIS) spatial data reporting in 2010, Suncor re-digitized all permanent reclamation areas and removed disturbance feature types (such as roads, power lines, pipelines, etc.) that occurred post-reclamation.

This resulted in a removal of 96.3 hectares of re-disturbance from the total of reclaimed areas prior to 2010. As such, the changes in the reclamation areas for each year and the total area permanently reclaimed to the end of 2010 have been updated to reflect these changes. Reclaimed lands have not been certified as such. For further details on the definition of reclaimed, see the legal notice at the end of this publication.

Improving reclamation techniques and accelerating the rate at which land is reclaimed are two key ways Suncor strives to balance responsible resource development with the need to preserve a healthy environment for future generations.

Expand all | Collapse all

Progressive reclamation

Oil sands reclamation techniques are constantly evolving and improving. In 2012, Suncor continued to make progress in how quickly — and how well — it reclaims disturbed lands.

Mining oil sands ore requires digging about 50 metres below the surface. The soil that is 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 land reclamation could begin. Suncor is increasingly working to reclaim disturbed lands as they are created, a process known as progressive reclamation.

Suncor's TROTM strategy, which we began implementing on a commercial scale in 2010, will further bolster the cause of progressive oil sands reclamation. Suncor's eight active tailings ponds account for 12.7% of the total land disturbed by Suncor through oil sands mining. Accelerating the pace at which mine tailings ponds, filled with liquid tailings, are transformed into solid, reclaimable surfaces is critical to resolving our overall oil sands reclamation challenge.

We expect 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 is expected to reduce or eliminate the need for future tailings ponds — removing another key obstacle to progressive oil sands reclamation.

In September 2010, Suncor became the first oil sands company to have a tailings pond with a trafficable surface (meaning it is able to support the weight of vehicles). Progressive reclamation is underway, and the plan is to ultimately transform the company's 220-hectare Pond 1, now named Wapisiw Lookout, into a mixed wood forest and a small wetland capable of supporting a variety of plants and wildlife.

Read the latest TROTM update

Raising the bar: wetland reclamation

Wetlands are an important part of Suncor's reclamation efforts. To date, 4.21 hectares of wetland reclamation has been completed. Developing the ability to reconstruct wetlands, including swamps, marshes and fens, is a high priority for research. Until recently, reclamation efforts had primarily focused on marshes.

Starting in the mid-2000s, Suncor began researching ways to reconstruct fens. Suncor's fen research has been part of a collaborative effort with other industry partners and universities.

A fen is the most common boreal wetland found in the mineable oil sands region. Fens are characterized by the ability to accumulate large deposits of organic matter (called peat) and by being primarily fed by groundwater inputs.

In January 2013, Suncor completed earthwork to construct a fen that emulates the characteristics of a natural fen. The fen and associated watershed are 32 hectares. Vegetation was to be planted in spring and summer 2013. Suncor will use this research on fen reconstruction to evolve our reclamation techniques.

We don't have a name for our fen yet — in 2013, we will be partnering with our local communities to name the fen.

We will continue to monitor our reconstructed fen wetland, and we are also moving on to our next challenge. Suncor is partnering with Ducks Unlimited Canada to investigate boreal swamp reclamation. Throughout 2012 and 2013, research was completed to identify natural boreal swamp habitat, vegetation, soils and hydrology. Suncor continues to research boreal swamp reclamation with the goal to reconstruct a boreal swamp on our reclamation areas.

Reclamation reporting: toward greater transparency

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 after surface reclamation of Suncor's Pond 1 (now named Wapisiw Lookout) was completed in 2010, and more than 600,000 trees were planted on the site, it will take at least another 15 years to reach the 'free-to-grow' standard required for certification.

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 not complete. It would make for a more complete story if operators were given some credit for achieving intermediate stages on the way to reclamation. According to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), approximately 10% of the area that has been disturbed by oil sands mining since operations began in the 1960s has been reclaimed by industry.

The Province of Alberta has introduced a reclamation reporting system that gives stakeholders a clearer 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 much more transparent to the public, with reclamation data available through an interactive, map-based website.

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. 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.

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 approximately 80% of Canada's oil sands are too deep to be mined and must be tapped using in situ technology, which is similar to conventional oil production. In situ operations disturb only 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 is thought to negatively impact wildlife habitat. As part of Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), Suncor is participating in several projects to address the issue of forest fragmentation. These include:

  • The Faster Forests Program, which in 2012 saw 600,000 trees and shrubs strategically planted in disturbed areas across the oil sands region.
  • The Algar Restoration Plan, which in 2012 saw 45,000 trees planted in a 570 square kilometre area southeast of Fort McMurray as part of an effort to reduce the impact of seismic lines and restore woodland caribou habitat.

Read more about the boreal forest action plan

Other land disturbance challenges

As a matter of course, Suncor undertakes active remediation at its downstream retail sites operated under the Petro-Canada, Shell and Phillips66 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 Phillips66 brands

Active remediation is also conducted at Suncor's 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.

Read more about land and biodiversity

™Trademark of Suncor Energy Inc.