Wherever Suncor's developments disturb land we pursue progressive reclamation, including reclaiming tailings ponds that are no longer required for active operations

Wherever Suncor's developments disturb land we pursue progressive reclamation. Learn more:

Wherever Suncor's developments disturb land we pursue progressive reclamation, including reclaiming tailings ponds that are no longer required for active operations

Wherever Suncor's developments disturb land we pursue progressive reclamation, including reclaiming tailings ponds that are no longer required for active operations

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Wherever our developments disturb land, we pursue progressive reclamation, including reclaiming tailings ponds that are no longer required for active operations.

Since Suncor opened Canada’s first oil sands mine in 1967, our oil sands operations have disturbed approximately 22,179 hectares of land. Land reclamation takes place once the disturbed land is no longer part of active operations. As of the end of 2016, the company had reclaimed about 10% of the total land disturbance to date.

Suncor land use at oil sands

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 ensure 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, locally common boreal forest ecosystem. 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, consisting of a 220 hectare watershed that supports 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 enable responsible and sustainable growth of Canada’s oil sands while delivering accelerated improvement in environmental performance through collaborative action and innovation;
  • 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 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 the largest area reclaimed in one year.
  • By the end of 2016, Suncor had planted more than 7.9 million trees, shrubs and aquatic plants at our Base plant alone – including 692,808 trees planted in the previous year.

Here are some details on Suncor’s reclamation procedures and performance in 2016:

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Progressive reclamation: A multi-phase process

Developing a reclamation and closure plan

Before constructing a new mine, we develop a conservation, reclamation and closure plan that identifies how and when mine disturbed areas will be reclaimed. We engage key stakeholders and consider their input during plan development. We also develop conservation, reclamation and closure plans with respect to land disturbed by our in situ operations. The Alberta government must authorize reclamation plans for all new projects.

Mining oil sands requires digging up to 50 metres below the surface, creating a pit. The soils and underlying overburden that sit over the oil sands deposit are salvaged. Soil is used immediately, when land is available for reclamation, or both soil and overburden are stored close to the mine site for future reclamation. The mine pits are often filled in with tailings from the extraction process.

In the past, there was a lag time of many years between when soil and overburden were removed and land reclamation could begin. We are working to close that gap so that disturbed areas become available soon after they are created, a process known as progressive reclamation. For example, we typically reclaim overburden storage areas immediately after they are created. In the case of tailings ponds, reclamation involves two distinct components:

  • transformation of the tailings ponds into a solid deposit that can be reclaimed as a stable closure landform
  • a self-sustaining ecosystem is established after soil is placed and local trees and shrubs are planted that support local wildlife

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 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 and reclamation management now and at future oil sands mine sites.

Returning the land to a self-sustaining boreal ecosystem

Once a landform is considered ‘ready for reclamation’, or no longer used for active operations, final closure contouring is completed. Closure drainage channels are installed, if necessary, and variation to landform’s surface and wildlife habitat features are added to encourage biodiversity in the final landscape. Soil is placed, either from stockpile or directly from a salvage area and erosion control mitigations are implemented where required.

Locally sourced 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. Reclaimed areas are monitored to ensure the new forest and wetlands mature into a healthy, self-sustaining ecosystem.

Areas planted in the 1980s are now seeing young conifer seedlings take root under mature trees – a positive sign of regeneration within a healthy forest.

Another indicator of success is the increase in wildlife returning to reclaimed lands. The species spotted on our reclamation areas include:

  • 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
  • amphibian species, such as the Canadian toad
  • muskrat
  • otter
  • beaver
  • lynx

Learn about our biodiversity initiatives

2016 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. We surpassed our target by reclaiming 3730 ha of oil sands in situ and mine disturbed lands or achieving a 176% increase relative to the 2007 baseline.

During 2016, Suncor reclaimed tailings sand and overburden areas within the Millennium and Steepbank mines by completing landform contouring and soil placement over these areas. Due to the Fort McMurray fire, tree planting was postponed in these areas to 2017.

Suncor continues to implement progressive reclamation, reclaiming land that is no longer required for operations. This includes the coke-capping of consolidated tailings underway at Pond 5, and the accelerated tailings dewatering (e.g. TRO process) currently being implemented.

Certification of reclaimed lands: A complex issue

Some people question why so few of the lands disturbed by the oil sands industry have been certified as reclaimed by the regulator. There is an expectation by the regulator and stakeholders that reclaimed land must be shown to be on a trajectory to achieving the final closure outcome, which is, for Suncor, a locally common, self-sustaining boreal forest ecosystem. There are a number of assessment points along that trajectory, specifically related to vegetation success. It is in the company’s best interest to ensure all regulatory expectations for reclamation can be met before applying for a reclamation certificate.

The reclamation certification process and expectations for oil sands mines have not been thoroughly described by the regulator. A reclamation certificate will be issued when an operator can demonstrate that equivalent land capability has been achieved. Land capability must consider the physical, chemical and biological characteristics of the land, including topography, drainage, hydrology, soils and vegetation. Reclamation and closure plans developed by the operators and authorized by the regulator include these objectives.

Once a reclamation certificate is issued by the regulator, the land is returned to the Crown. Although public access can be controlled through dispositions issued by the Public Lands Act, the land is no longer available for use by the company. If there is any chance that the land may be necessary for future development, it is not in a company’s best interest to certify the land.

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 regulator. While technically accurate, the statement is incomplete since progressive reclamation has been occurring since the 1970s and as of 2015, 6,164 hectares of land has been permanently reclaimed in the mineable oil sands region. Certification is only the final confirmation that land has been permanently reclaimed.

A transparent reclamation reporting system

In 2009, the Government of Alberta 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 (OSIP) is a one-window source for information; the public portal has both an interactive map display and a data library.

Consistent with OSIP, the oil sands mine operators provide the regulator with Annual Reclamation Progress Tracking Reports that track reclamation progress through eight key milestones:

  1. tree cleared
  2. soil disturbed
  3. ready for reclamation (no longer used for operations)
  4. soils placed – terrestrial, wetlands and aquatics
  5. temporary reclamation – terrestrial
  6. permanent reclamation – terrestrial
  7. permanent reclamation – wetlands and aquatics
  8. certified

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.

However, 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 2012, to address the historical Oil Sands Exploration (OSE) footprint, 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 more than 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 2016 saw 656,808 trees and shrubs strategically planted in disturbed areas across the oil sands region. Since 2009, four million trees and shrubs have been planted cumulatively by this program alone.
  • The Algar Restoration Program saw 162,000 trees planted in 387 kilometres of seismic lines southeast of Fort McMurray within the Algar region. These tree plantings took place outside of actual license areas as part of an effort to reduce the regional impact of seismic lines and restore woodland caribou habitat. Implementation of vegetation and wildlife monitoring programs continued in 2016 to track how restoration work affects wildlife movement in the area.

All of Alberta’s in situ operations are now required to submit Project-Level Conservation, Reclamation and Closure Plans to the regulator. This new project-level approach to managing disturbance and reclamation activities across Suncor’s Firebag and MacKay River facilities is expected to lead to improved reclamation timelines and better reclamation outcomes.

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 vegetation.

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 land disturbance.

Among these are projects that support native tree, shrub and wetland species that are an ecologically and culturally important component of boreal forest ecosystems:

  • In the culturally significant wetland plant program, we partnered with elders from five First Nation communities to develop a list of 10 significant wetland plants to grow and plant in reclamation. The list reflects and respects the traditional knowledge of Aboriginal communities and enhances Suncor’s reclamation.
  • 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 re-vegetation 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.
  • 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.

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 continued in 2016 to ensure mining and in situ-disturbed lands are reclaimed in a manner that prevents health risks to the people and wildlife that will use these areas after closure. 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.