Land quality and use is an important priority throughout the life cycle of a project, from project planning through to project closure and reclamation.
Land reclamation takes place once the disturbed land is no longer part of active operations; including mine and tailings areas, roads, plant facilities and buildings, wells and pipelines. Our challenge is to reduce the size and duration of our footprint in order to maintain biodiversity and to support the function of nearby natural ecosystems.
Once an oil or natural gas site is no longer productive, regulations require the operator to decommission the operation and reclaim the site.
Since Suncor began operations in 1967, we have disturbed 22,205 hectares of land in the Athabasca region (oil sands base operations). As of the end of 2017, we had reclaimed* about 10% of the total land disturbance to date, including 2,179 hectares of terrestrial reclamation and 48 hectares of wetlands and aquatic reclamation.
- Landform construction and contouring – all disturbed surface areas must be constructed and contoured to support the establishment of a self-sustaining boreal forest that integrates with other reclaimed landforms and adjacent natural areas. A key feature of the reclaimed landscape will be the establishment of new surface water pathways (i.e., closure drainage features) that will direct precipitation run-off through the reclaimed lands. Adequate erosion control will provide for landform stability and generally is achieved once vegetation establishes and matures.
- Reclamation soil placement and revegetation – the establishment of a self-sustaining native plant community is a benchmark for reclamation success, including the control of invasive plant species and noxious weeds.
- Reclamation Monitoring – following reclamation, landform performance is monitored and assessed, including soil quality and quantity, vegetation performance (i.e., plant density, height, productivity, diversity, etc.) and wildlife activity. Mitigations (e.g., erosion repairs, weed management, additional planting) are completed, as required.
Suncor’s multi-phase reclamation process
Developing a mine reclamation and closure plan
Before developing 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 80 metres below the surface, creating a mine pit that is usually filled in with overburden and/or tailings from the extraction process. Prior to mining, soils and suitable overburden that sit over the oil sands deposit are salvaged. 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 that disturbed areas become available soon after they are created, through 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, closure and 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 Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (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 more rapidly. We expect this will result in improved tailings and reclamation management at current and future oil sands mine sites.
Returning the land to a self-sustaining boreal ecosystem
Once a landform is considered ‘ready for reclamation’, and can no longer be used for active operations, final landform construction and contouring can progress. Closure drainage features are constructed and reclamation soils are placed. Surface variability and wildlife habitat features are added to encourage biodiversity in the final landscape.
Locally sourced tree, shrub and aquatic seedlings are planted and the soil is fertilized directly at the seedling roots to help the young plants during early development years. Reclaimed areas are monitored to ensure the new forest, lakes 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
- grey wolf
- red fox
- mule deer and white-tailed deer
- snowshoe hare
- amphibian species, such as the Canadian toad
2017 progress on land reclamation
Suncor reclaimed tailings sand and overburden areas within the Millennium and Steepbank mines by completing landform construction and, contouring and soil placement over these areas.
In 2017, more than 400,000 trees and shrubs were planted, bringing the total number of trees and shrubs planted since 1976 to approximately eight million.
Suncor continues to progressively treat tailings and reclaim land that is no longer required for operations. This includes the coke-capping of consolidated tailings completed at Pond 5, and implementation of the Permanent Aquatic Storage Structure (PASS) treatment process that will start operations in 2018.
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 regulator and stakeholders 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 regional, a locally common, self-sustaining boreal forest ecosystem. There are a number of assessment points along that path, specifically related to vegetation success.
A reclamation certificate will be issued when 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.
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
As the oil sands industry grows, the ratio of land being disturbed by development is expected to decline. That is due to reclamation that is underway at current sites, and the reserves that underlie approximately 97% of Canada’s oil sands surface area are recoverable using in situ technology, which is similar to conventional oil production.
In situ operations disturb only about 15% of the land required for traditional mining operations.
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.
Other land disturbance challenges
As a matter of course, we undertake remediation at our downstream retail sites. Remediation is done in conjunction with upgrades to facilities and tanks at existing operations as well as at sites facing closure.
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 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 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 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 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 2017 to ensure mining and in situ-disturbed lands are reclaimed in a manner that prevents health risks to people and wildlife. Results are shared with COSIA to ensure we are 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 section of this report.