Reclamation - Suncor’s 2014 Report on sustainability

Reclamation - Suncor’s 2014 Report on sustainability

Reclamation - Suncor’s 2014 Report on sustainability

Reclamation - Suncor’s 2014 Report on sustainability

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

Since we opened Canada’s first oil sands mine in 1967, our oil sands operations have disturbed approximately 21,690 hectares of land. As of the end of 2013, the company had reclaimed* approximately 1,708 hectares, or about 8% 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 our  TRO™ process, we expect to see land available for oil sands reclamation at a more rapid pace. We are targeting a 100% increase in land area reclaimed* by 2015 (as compared to 2007).

Suncor land use at oil sands

(1) Following Alberta Environment & Sustainable Resource Development’s issuance of standards for Geographic Information Systems 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 we strive to balance responsible resource development with the need to preserve a healthy environment for future generations.

Here are some details on our reclamation procedures and performance in 2013:

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Progressive reclamation: A multi-phase process

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.

Developing a reclamation plan

Before constructing a new mine, we develop a reclamation plan in consultation with local stakeholders and government regulators. We develop plans for conservation and reclamation 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 soil that is removed 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 as they are created, a process known as progressive reclamation.

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 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 member of Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), and a company committed to accelerating environmental performance improvements, we have shared details specific to our TRO process with other COSIA member companies. In return, we have been provided access to the technologies that others are using to manage their existing tailings ponds.

Through shared research, experience, expertise and financial commitments, we are able to investigate new tailings technologies at a more rapid pace. We anticipate that this sharing of resources through COSIA will dramatically improve tailings management now and at future oil sands mine sites.

Learn more about COSIA’s tailings environmental priority area

Read more about our water management strategies

Returning the land to a self-sustaining 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 is seeded with barley, oats and/or native bunch grasses. These act as a nurse crop to protect the young native plants that will soon begin to grow.

Native tree, shrub and aquatic seedlings are planted, and the soil is fertilized for the first several years to give the young plants help. As the trees, shrubs and aquatics 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 2013, we planted more than 6.5 million trees, shrubs and aquatic plants on our oil sands site – including 590,000 trees in the previous 12 months 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 success indicator 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

Learn about our biodiversity initiatives

Wapisiw Lookout: A reclamation milestone

In September 2010, we became the first oil sands company to reclaim a tailings pond to a trafficable surface (meaning it is able to support the weight of vehicles). The pond was transformed into a 220-hectare watershed, now named Wapisiw Lookout, composed of a developing mixed wood forest, streams and a small marsh wetland capable of supporting a variety of plants and wildlife.

Over the next few decades, we will closely monitor progress on Wapisiw Lookout, including the growth of 620,000 trees, shrubs and aquatics planted in 2010. Ongoing soil, water, vegetation and wildlife assessments help ensure this site is on course for return to a self-sustaining boreal ecosystem.

Read more about the Wapisiw Lookout reclamation

Wetland reclamation: Pioneering fen research

Wetlands are an important part of reclamation efforts. To date, 48.1 hectares of wetland and lake reclamation have been completed. A high research priority is developing the ability to reconstruct wetlands, including swamps, marshes and fens. Until recently, reclamation efforts had primarily focused on marshes.

In August 2013, we marked a milestone in wetland reclamation – the official opening of a reconstructed fen that is planned to emulate the properties of a natural fen. Our fen – one of the first reclaimed fen wetland watersheds in the world – is named Nikanotee (pronounced Nee-ga-no-tee), a Cree word meaning future.

A fen is the most common boreal wetland type 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. Fens are perpetually wet, storing water and releasing it slowly during dry periods. They act as filters for streams and rivers lower down, improving water quality by capturing runoff and scrubbing out nutrients and sediments. They are also home to diverse biota, such as amphibians, birds, moose, and a wide range of plants – including the insect-eating pitcher plant.

Located at our Oil Sands base plant near Fort McMurray, Alta., our three-hectare fen is fed by a man-made 32-hectare watershed. The project is the culmination of 10 years of collaborative research. The fen hydrological feasibility modelling was led by the University of Waterloo in partnership with the Cumulative Environmental Management Association. We funded the design and construction of the fen. We are also funding ongoing research and monitoring of the constructed site along with Shell and Imperial Oil.

Research and monitoring of the fen wetland watershed will be conducted by students from five universities and colleges – Waterloo, Calgary, Colorado State, Wilfrid Laurier and Keyano – as well as our staff. It’s expected this work will reveal a lot about the potential for recreating these natural habitats.

At the same time, we are undertaking another wetland challenge. We are 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. We continue to research the potential for boreal swamp reclamation with the goal of one day reconstructing boreal swamps on our reclamation areas as well.

Read more about wetland reclamation in OSQAR

Certification of reclaimed lands: A complex 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 after surface reclamation and re-vegetation of Wapisiw Lookout was completed 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 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, approximately 10% of the area that has been disturbed by oil sands mining since operations began in the 1960s has been reclaimed by industry.

A transparent reclamation reporting system

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 negatively impacts wildlife habitat. As part of Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, we are participating in several projects to address the issue of forest fragmentation. These include:

  • The Faster Forests Program, which in 2013 saw approximately 600,000 trees and shrubs strategically planted in disturbed areas across the oil sands region.
  • The Algar Restoration Plan, which in 2013 saw 30,000 trees planted in a 40 kilometre area of linear disturbance southeast of Fort McMurray outside of their actual licence areas 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, we undertake active remediation at our 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 on

Active 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

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

Among these:

  • Native shrub and wetland species are an ecologically and culturally important component of boreal forest ecosystems.
    • The Improving Seed Longevity of Native Shrubs program is identifying 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 Propagation and Establishment of Ratroot study investigates how to grow the culturally significant wetland plant ratroot in greenhouses and successfully establish it in reclaimed wetlands and lakes.
  • Successful establishment of tree species can be limited by low nutrient and water availability, soil compaction and competition from ground cover.
    • The Identifying Limiting Factors for Tree Growth on Reclaimed Sites program is focused on determining potential limiting factors to boreal tree growth in reclaimed landscapes and providing best management practices to correct any growth-limiting factors.
    • The Controlled-released Fertilization and Fertilization to Optimize Growth programs are complementary research studies that evaluate the potential for different fertilization techniques to improve re-vegetation success and, in the case of the later program, assess whether groundcover competition has an effect on tree seedling establishment.
  • Part of a larger, continent-wide program, 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 is advancing our understanding of the effects of mine activities on wildlife population dynamics. Through ongoing research and monitoring, the program is evaluating the function of undisturbed or reclaimed buffers adjacent to mines and the buffers’ effects on wildlife dispersion, connectivity and predator/prey interactions.

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

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