Report on Sustainability 2019

Caribou recovery and conservation

Suncor and Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) member companies are initiating and applying leading-edge habitat restoration projects to repair fragmented habitat, and are testing new technologies to avoid and/or minimize future exploration disturbance footprint in northeastern Alberta.
Woodland caribou recorded as part of the photographic monitoring program.
Woodland caribou recorded as part of the photographic monitoring program.

Woodland caribou are adapted to life in the boreal forest. They are a non-migratory subspecies that require large expanses of habitat with low densities of predators, like wolves, and are usually found in small numbers.

COSIA’s caribou projects

Complex combinations of natural and human-caused factors have had a direct effect on woodland caribou by creating landscape change and indirectly increasing predation. Due to the decline in caribou populations resulting from these changes, they are listed as threatened under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.

Within the boreal forest, landscape change has altered and contributed to a fragmented landscape. This often leads to increased populations of deer, moose, elk and their predators. Given the low numbers of woodland caribou in the boreal forest, any increased predation pressure can have devastating effects.

As an operator in the boreal forest, Suncor has a role to play in contributing to caribou recovery and conservation, and we’ve developed a strategy, working with our industry peers and other stakeholders through organizations such as COSIA, to mitigate our impact on caribou. This means regular consideration of caribou-focused objectives at both the local and landscape levels and includes things such as:

  • incorporation of under-pipe crossings along above-ground pipelines at in situ projects
  • reclaiming disturbed areas to accelerate recovery of caribou habitat

Algar project

In collaboration with COSIA, Suncor completed a multi-year caribou habitat restoration program to repair fragmented habitat within the Algar region of northeast Alberta in 2015.

The Algar project was completed through an integrated regional approach, with COSIA companies working together to repair fragmented habitat across 570 km² of the Algar region, a portion of the East Side Athabasca River (ESAR) caribou range, outside of their actual licence areas.

Monitoring of vegetation and wildlife response has been underway since the completion of the restoration program. Learnings gained and the science developed from the Algar project has been shared across COSIA member company participants in the Land Environment Priority Area, to inform similar restoration programs undertaken since and those planned in the future.

Regional Industry Caribou Collaboration (RICC)

Suncor is a member of the COSIA Regional Industry Caribou Collaboration (RICC).

RICC members work collaboratively across tenure and lease boundaries with academia, the Government of Alberta and the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute (ABMI) Caribou Monitoring Unit on an ongoing basis to co-ordinate industry restoration of disturbance in priority areas and to find new research opportunities to improve how we restore habitat and understand the biodiversity throughout the RICC study area.

The RICC study area covers approximately 85,000 km² and is focused on two northeastern Alberta caribou ranges: the ESAR and Cold Lake boreal woodland caribou ranges.

COSIA Zero Footprint Exploration Challenge

Suncor envisioned and collaboratively-led development of the COSIA Land Challenge for zero footprint exploration (a.k.a. seismic) to support caribou conservation by avoiding and/or minimizing new disturbance required for in situ project development.

It was designed to address landscape change caused by the creation of seismic lines that contribute to the fragmentation of the boreal forest and subsequent caribou population declines through increased predation.

PinPoint Near-Zero Disturbance Seismic Program

Today the oil sands industry uses the low-impact seismic (LIS) approach to gather sub-surface geological information, which guides oil sands in situ reservoir planning and production. Trees are cleared in a grid of criss-crossing lines that are two to three metres wide and enable seismic equipment access. The LIS approach is an example of an oil sands innovation developed during the last decade to support environmental performance improvement, since historical seismic lines were up to 10 metres wide. Creation of the COSIA Land Challenge and development and piloting of near-zero oil and gas exploration tools, like the Explor PinPoint technology, demonstrates the oil sands industry’s drive for the next step-change in environmental footprint reduction.

To strive to meet the COSIA Land Challenge, Suncor executed the PinPoint Near-Zero Disturbance Seismic Program in partnership with Explor in 2017 (2D pilot), and Explor and Alberta Innovates (government) in 2018 (3D pilot).

By using a hand-portable tool to apply individual source points during a series of pilot tests of Explor’s innovative PinPoint technology, the PinPoint Program acquired ultra-high density seismic imaging without the need to clear trees. These results demonstrated that high-quality seismic data can be obtained safely and with near-zero footprint, at least on a small-scale.

PinPoint Program results suggest that Suncor may one day be able to non-destructively acquire seismic at a commercial-scale and thus deploy seismic programs aligned with caribou recovery and conservation objectives. The results have been shared with COSIA participants in the Land Environment Priority Area to support environmental performance improvement in the oil sands region, and technology validation and optimization continues.

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Recommended readings
COSIA
Biodiversity initiatives