Oil and natural gas operations occur in very diverse landscapes and these landscapes are home to many ecosystems containing a variety of plants and animals. Alberta's oil sands lie under 142,000 km2 of land. Only about 3%, or 4,800 km2, of that land could ever be impacted by the mining method of extracting oil sands. The remaining reserves that underlie 97% of the oil sands surface area are recoverable by using drilling (in situ) methods that require significantly less surface land disturbance relative to mining.
Reducing our footprint, reclaiming land, promoting biodiversity
Suncor works on three primary fronts 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
The following biodiversity elements were implemented recently during reclamation planning and execution to improve landscape biodiversity outcomes:
- by working with Aboriginal communities, more culturally-significant wetland and riparian plants have been incorporated into existing reclaimed areas and revegetation plans
- diverse ecosystems were created, including lakes, streams, shallow open water, riparian areas, marsh and fen wetlands
- approximately 40 species of native trees, shrubs and aquatic plants have been planted, including those important for local wildlife, food and habitat, and Aboriginal cultural significance
- coarse woody debris was recovered from disturbed forests and reused in reclamation areas to support small mammal habitat and erosion control
- logs recovered from disturbed forests were reused as snags or wildlife trees to create perches and nesting sites for birds and habitat for other wildlife
- bird and bat boxes were constructed and installed in many areas
- islands were constructed in the middle of wetlands to support safe bird nesting habitat
- direct placement of soils in newly reclaimed areas
Working with stakeholders
Local stakeholders are consulted and involved in monitoring any risks and/or potential impacts on biodiversity. The Government of Alberta requires us to provide plans and progress updates, for managing our impacts on many components of biodiversity within the areas where we operate. This includes:
- revegetation plans
- soil salvage and placement plans
- wildlife mitigation and monitoring plans
Environmental impact assessments and/or socio-economic impact assessments are required by law at all sites where we operate.
Suncor is also a signatory to the Boreal Forest Conservation Framework – a groundbreaking national conservation vision developed by 20 First Nations, environmental groups and resource companies. The vision articulated in the Framework calls for the establishment of a network of large, interconnected protected areas, covering about half of the country’s boreal forest, and the use of leading-edge sustainable development practices in remaining areas.
Our ongoing biodiversity initiatives
Wildlife management program
The objective of Suncor’s wildlife management program in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo is to minimize human-wildlife conflicts and wildlife habituation and conditioning, while maintaining a healthy wildlife population and diversity.
We regularly consult and collaborate with Alberta Environment and Parks’ (AEP) wildlife biologists and local fish and wildlife officers.
Bird protection program
Suncor is committed to minimizing interactions between birds and the process-affected ponds required for its operations in the oil sands through:
- adoption and refinement of deterrent methods
- monitoring for bird contacts
- searching for bird mortalities
We use a combination of radar linked deterrents, non-radar linked deterrents and physical deterrents to discourage birds from landing on tailings and other process-affected ponds. And we closely monitor our deterrents and attend to any affected birds in consultation with the AEP.
Industry collaboration on biodiversity
As the oil sands industry grows, it becomes increasingly important to work together to address the cumulative impacts of development on wildlife and biodiversity. One way we do this is through our participation in Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA).
Through COSIA, we work on a wide range of projects aimed at environmental footprint reduction, accelerating reclamation and preserving biodiversity.
COSIA’s land environmental priority area is focused on reducing the footprint intensity and impact of oil sands mining and in situ operations on the land and wildlife of northern Alberta.
Suncor worked collaboratively with other COSIA members to develop the COSIA Land Environmental Priority Area (EPA) Performance Goal, an intensity-based metric that measures the amount of in situ surface land disturbance per area of reservoir accessed. Collaboratively our organizations are working towards the goal of reducing our operational footprint intensity by 10% by 2022.
In addition, Suncor led development of a COSIA Land Challenge that is focused on finding new technologies that support approaching zero land disturbance exploration. The COSIA Land Challenge was released in Q1 2017. Several new technology ideas and proposals have been received to date. At least one proposal was advanced in Q4 2017 to the pilot stage.
More examples of COSIA projects related to boreal forest biodiversity:
Reclamation efforts in the Algar region
The Landscape Ecological Assessment and Planning tool and database developed by COSIA was used to plan caribou habitat restoration in the Algar region, an area covering 570 km2 along the Athabasca River southeast of Fort McMurray. The Algar project was completed through an integrated regional approach, with COSIA companies working together to repair fragmented habitat across an area of land outside of their actual licence areas.
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 2017, more than 950,000 trees and shrubs were planted, bringing the total number of trees and shrubs planted since 2009 to approximately five million.
Planting shrubs native to the area is a major focus. These shrubs will help tree seedlings grow healthier, faster and with less competition for nutrients and water from fast-growing grasses. The result: greater ecological integrity and biodiversity. Berry-bearing shrubs such as blueberry and saskatoon are important to Aboriginal 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.
Alberta Biodiversity Conservation Chairs
COSIA is sponsoring the Alberta Biodiversity Research Chairs Program that’s intended to fast track biodiversity science and support on-the-ground research on the environmental impact of development in the boreal forest of northern Alberta.
The current program includes two research chairs at the University of Alberta, which cover four integrated research themes:
- Rare and endangered species monitoring and conservation
- Cause and effect assessment of biodiversity change as the foundation for effective management
- Improve monitoring, modelling and management of terrestrial biodiversity for regional land use planning
- Integrated restoration – from site to landscape levels
Wetland reclamation: pioneering fen research
Wetlands are an important part of reclamation efforts. To date, close to 50 hectares of wetland and lake reclamation have been completed by Suncor (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). A high research priority is developing the ability to reconstruct wetlands, including swamps, marshes, fens and bogs. Until recently, reclamation efforts had primarily focused on marshes.
In 2013, Suncor completed construction of a three-hectare fen, named the Nikanotee (pronounced Nee-ga-no-tee; Cree word for “future”) fen. The achievement established Suncor as one of the first companies in the world to complete reconstruction of this type of wetland. This work was completed in co-operation with a number of university researchers and consultants from across the continent.
A fen is the most common wetland type found in the mineable oil sands region. Fens tend to:
- accumulate large deposits of organic matter (called peat) and are primarily fed by groundwater inputs
- be perpetually wet, storing water and releasing it slowly during dry periods
- act as filters for streams and rivers lower down, improving water quality by capturing run-off and scrubbing out nutrients and sediments
- be 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, Alberta, our three-hectare fen is fed by a man-made 32-hectare watershed. The project is the culmination of more than 10 years of collaborative research.
The University of Waterloo led the 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.
The Nikanotee fen is now a joint industry project, contributed by Suncor to other members of COSIA.
Recently, Suncor initiated a bog reclamation feasibility study called Raised Bogs: Western and Traditional Knowledge Review. Gathering information on bog form and function from two knowledge systems, western and traditional or Aboriginal sciences – is the first step in understanding if and how we can design and build a bog reclamation pilot that resembles natural bogs in the region – like the bogs that develop over large peat plateaus, on smaller peat basins on mineral soil, or on frost mounds. This work is guided by western scientists and Aboriginal knowledge holders.