Land and reclamation
Reducing our footprint and reclaiming land
Suncor works on three primary areas to minimize our impact in the boreal region:
- Reducing the impact of our operations on land resources through scientific research and best management practices, while also working with neighbouring companies to reduce the cumulative effects of development
- Accelerating the pace of reclamation of disturbed lands, including the reclamation of tailings ponds.
- Preserving biodiversity by working internally and with industry peers and multi-stakeholder organizations on initiatives to conserve and reclaim habitat for birds, mammals, fish and other species.
End land use is an important priority throughout the life cycle of a project, from planning through to project closure and reclamation.
Progressive land reclamation takes place once the disturbed land is no longer part of active operations; this includes mine and tailings areas, roads, plant facilities and buildings, wells and pipelines. Our challenge is to reduce the size and duration of our footprint to facilitate the return of biodiversity and to sustain the function of nearby natural ecosystems.
Once an oil sands facility is no longer productive, regulations require the operator to decommission the operation and reclaim the site.
2018 progress on reclamation
Since Suncor began operations at Base plant in 1967, the project has disturbed 22,224 cumulative hectares of land in the Athabasca region. As of 2018, we have cumulatively reclaimed* approximately 10% of the total land disturbance, including 2,275 hectares of terrestrial reclamation and 48 hectares of wetland and aquatic reclamation.
We planted approximately 310,000 tree and shrub seedlings in reclamation areas at Base plant in 2018; bringing the total cumulative seedlings planted to close to 8.3 million. In addition, Indigenous community members, Indigenous Co-op students and Suncor employees planted approximately 4,000 aquatic plants (from 15 different species) along the shores of Lake Miwasin.
Fort Hills officially began production in 2018. As new mines are developed, the disturbance footprint increases significantly; however, Suncor continually looks for opportunities to minimize our footprint and progressively reclaim areas no longer required for production.
Even though Fort Hills is newly in production, reclamation activities have already begun.
As of 2018, Fort Hills has completed 19 hectares of terrestrial reclamation* and 16 hectares of wetlands and aquatic reclamation*, as well as 241 hectares of temporary reclamation*.
Suncor planted approximately 18,000 tree seedlings in 2018 at a habitat compensation lake (also known as "No Net Loss Lake"), completing the reclamation initiated in 2015. In total, we have planted 75,000 tree and shrub seedlings in approximately 23 hectares at No Net Loss Lake.
In 2018, an 11.5 hectares area was permanently reclaimed* at the Firebag project; bringing the total area reclaimed to just more than 20 hectares. We also planted approximately 33,000 tree and shrub seedlings at various borrow pits and well pads.
Suncor continues to conduct progressive reclamation on areas that are no longer needed for oil sands operations. Suncor is also conducting research with the intent to enable a better return to equivalent land capability from an ecological, temporal and cost perspective:
Wetlands are an important part of reclamation efforts. To date, close to 50 hectares of wetland and lake reclamation* have been completed by Suncor.
In 2013, Suncor completed construction of a three-hectare fen, named the Nikanotee (pronounced Nee-ga-no-tee; Cree word for "future") fen, fed by a man-made 32 hectare watershed, located at our oil sands Base plant near Fort McMurray, Alberta. The project is the culmination of more than 10 years of collaborative research. The achievement established Suncor as one of the first companies in the world to complete reconstruction of this type of wetland. We completed this work in co-operation with a number of university researchers and consultants from across the continent.
"Fens are the dominant wetland type in the boreal forest so we wanted to see that they could be re-created when we reclaim the land," says Lisa Bridges, reclamation specialist – biodiversity, Upstream. "All our results so far indicate that it is in fact possible for oil sands mines to build a fen that functions similarly to a naturally-occurring fen."
The University of Waterloo led the Nikanotee fen hydrological feasibility modelling, in partnership with the Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA). Suncor funded the design and construction of the fen. Along with Teck Resources and Imperial, we are funding ongoing research and monitoring of the constructed site.
Our findings thus far reveal that the water table is stable, that the fen is storing carbon (a key function of peatlands) and that the fen system supports native vegetation species and wildlife habitat – even a denning bear in the winter of 2018.
The Nikanotee fen is now a joint industry project, contributed by Suncor to other members of COSIA.
From 1967 to 1997, Wapisiw Lookout – originally named Pond 1 – received tailings from production for storage. As production increased over these years, so did the pond. With closure operations beginning in 2007, the pond was transformed into a 220-hectare (544-acres) watershed, feeding into a thriving marsh wetland habitat.
Since Suncor became the first oil sands company to reclaim a tailings pond to a trafficable surface, Wapisiw Lookout has transformed from a field of grass into a young forest and wetland.
"Canadian toads, boreal chorus frogs and wood frogs, the three species of amphibians in the Fort McMurray region have been seen at Wapisiw. Canadian toads – a species listed as "may be at risk" in Alberta – and boreal chorus frog eggs have been observed, indicating that both sexes of these species are able to locate Wapisiw and are choosing to breed at the site.
Deer, fox, coyote, moose, grouse, bald eagle, black bear and numerous other wildlife species have also visited the area or call Wapisiw Lookout home.
As part of our mine closure plan, we are currently investigating ways to safely return clean, treated tailings water to the environment. We are piloting this through our demonstration pit lake (DPL) - now known as Lake Miwasin. This system is a closed loop system where we maintain control of the water over a number of years; once it meets regulatory criteria, and upon government approval, we expect to allow water from Lake Miwasin to be naturally released to the environment.
Lake Miwasin is part of our closure technology development program that is designed to ensure we can successfully reclaim mine sites. This project employed the permanent aquatic storage structure (PASS) fluid tailings treatment technology as the first step to establish a lake capable of supporting a full ecosystem of aquatic life.
In August 2018, Indigenous Elders and Suncor’s Indigenous co-op and summer students participated in planting vegetation around the lakeshore. The planting list included culturally-significant wetland plants, such as ratroot, sweetgrass and sweet gale, recommended by Indigenous Elders and knowledge holders through the Suncor-sponsored Culturally Significant Wetland Plants Study. This was an opportunity for Indigenous communities to see that their input is improving reclamation outcomes, to continue sharing knowledge about the species being planted, and to see the progress of Lake Miwasin.
In May 2019, members of the First Nations and Metis community were invited for the Lake Miwasin / Constructed Wetland Treatment System workshop. The workshop provided an opportunity for additional community input on the proposed research and monitoring projects for the community led monitoring (CLM) program for the Lake Miwasin project.
Suncor’s multi-phase reclamation process
Developing a mine reclamation and closure plan
Before developing a new mine, we develop life-of-mine closure plans and mine reclamation plans that identify how and when mine-disturbed areas will be reclaimed. These plans are updated regularly through the life of the project, where we can update to include new developments and technology into the closure plan.The Alberta government must authorize reclamation plans for all new projects, and authorizes updated plans as they are developed.
Mining oil sands requires digging up to 80 metres below the surface, creating a mine pit that is usually filled in with overburden and/or tailings from the extraction process. Before mining, we salvage soils and suitable overburden that sit over the oil sands deposit. The soil is used immediately, when land is available for reclamation; or is stockpiled for future use.
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 disturbed areas become available soon after they are created, through a process known as progressive reclamation.
Developing an in situ reclamation and closure plan
Similar to a mine, we also develop conservation, reclamation and closure plans for land disturbed by our in situ operations. A relatively recent regulatory requirement, each in situ facility is now required to complete a project-level conservation, reclamation and closure plan (PLCRCP) and to update it every five years. This integrated approach to conservation, reclamation and closure planning and execution provides a project-level plan for achieving equivalent land capability and long-term, sustainable environmental outcomes after closure.
Following the Alberta Energy Regulators Specific Guidance, in situ facilities report on land disturbed and reclaimed. While in situ wellpads may be used for longer than previously thought, reclamation of depleted borrow pits is the focus at Suncor’s in situ facilities. Reclaimed borrow pits will provide a matrix of uplands, wetlands and lakes, reflective of the local boreal forest.
Certification of reclaimed lands – a complex issue
Some people question why so little land disturbed by the oil sands industry has been certified as "reclaimed" by the regulator. There is an expectation by the regulators and stakeholders alike that reclaimed land must be shown to be on a path to achieving the final closure outcome, which is, for our operations in the Wood Buffalo region, a locally common, self-sustaining boreal forest. There are a number of assessment points along that path, specifically related to vegetation success.
The regulator will issue a reclamation certificate when equivalent land capability has been achieved. Land capability must consider the physical, chemical and biological characteristics of the land, including:
In 2009, the Government of Alberta implemented a reclamation reporting system that gives the public a clear understanding of the progress being made during 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.
In situ land disturbance
Approximately 97% of Canada’s oil sands surface is recoverable using in situ technology, which results in a footprint similar to conventional oil production. In situ operations disturb only about 15% of the land required for traditional mining operations.
As the oil sands industry grows, the ratio of land being disturbed by development is expected to decline as reclamation continues to increase.
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 and can negatively impact wildlife habitat. Borrow pits for clay and gravel are required for the construction of these facilities, but are typically available for progressive reclamation early in the life of the project.
Other land disturbance challenges
As a matter of course, we undertake remediation at our downstream retail sites where required. Remediation is done in conjunction with upgrades to facilities and tanks at existing operations as well as at sites facing closure. We also conduct remediation at our oil sands facilities where required.
Industry collaborations and reclamation research and monitoring
Suncor participates in several 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 our reclamation efforts.
Among these are projects that support native tree, shrub and aquatic species that are an ecologically and culturally important component of boreal forest ecosystems:
- In the Culturally Significant Wetland Plants Study, 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 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.
- The Industrial Research Chair in Terrestrial Restoration is examining the root growth of boreal forest tree and shrub species, to provide knowledge of boreal forest ecosystems that can be incorporated into reclamation and closure plans.
- The Long-Term Plot Network, established in 2000, collects soil, tree, and vegetation data from permanent plots every five years. The data is used to explore long-term trends in soil properties, forest productivity, and plant community composition in oil sands mining reclamation areas.
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.
Human health and wildlife risk assessment research and monitoring continued in 2018 to ensure mining and in situ-disturbed lands are reclaimed in a manner that prevents health risks to people and wildlife.
Tailings technologies collaboration
As a company committed to accelerating environmental performance improvements, Suncor shares details on our tailings management work with members of Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA).
In return, we gain access to technologies that other member companies are using to manage existing tailings ponds.
The Faster Forests program
The Faster Forests program is designed to address forest fragmentation by strategically planting trees in disturbed areas across the oil sands region.
In 2018, close to 300,000 trees and shrubs were planted, bringing the total number of trees and shrubs planted since 2009 to approximately five million.
Planting trees and shrubs native to the area is a major focus of the program. These seedlings will help reclaimed oil sands exploration sites establish forest ecosystems and become integrated with surrounding forests more quickly than areas reclaimed with grass species, as was done in the past.
The result: greater ecological integrity and biodiversity. Berry-bearing shrubs such as blueberry and Saskatoon are important to Indigenous communities and wildlife.
Suncor has adopted learnings from the Faster Forests program and incorporated them into our operations. This practice has allowed us to address historical disturbances that were not otherwise revegetating.
Oil Sands Vegetation Co-operative
The Oil Sands Vegetation Cooperative was initiated by oil sands mining operators in 2009 to collect native shrub seeds efficiently and collectively. The objective of the seed collection program was to provide seedlings the companies needed to complete their annual reclamation programs, as well as to establish a long-term native seed bank to address future revegetation requirements faced by the industry as a whole. Since 2009, the seed collection program has grown to include in situ operations.
The vegetation co-operative has also evolved to collaboratively conduct research to support the storage, germination, nursery growing, and planting of seedlings grown from the seed collected by the program. Examples of this research include: improving seed longevity in storage, germination of native shrub species, vegetative propagation of boreal shrubs, and measuring the success of shrubs grown from the cooperative’s collected seed.
In the first decade since its inception, seed collected by the vegetation co-operative has played a major role in supporting Suncor’s current reclamation programs by providing the seed that is necessary to grow healthy trees and shrubs, and in supporting Suncor’s future reclamation programs by banking enough seed to grow millions of seedlings for multiple tree and shrub species.
* Reclaimed lands have not been certified as such by government regulators. For further details on what we mean by reclaimed, see the legal advisories section of this report.