Land

Our long-term vision is to create a landscape which has capability equivalent to that which existed prior to disturbance, supports a healthy diversity of plants and animals, and sustains a range of land uses.

Our Performance

Land Graphic 1

54 hectares

of former mine areas reclaimed in 2015.

Over 272,000

tree and shrub seedlings planted on reclaimed land.

Land Graphic 2
Land Graphic 3

59% of land reclamation

in oil sands mining industry at Syncrude sites.

Our Approach

Our long-term vision is to create a landscape that supports a healthy diversity of plants and animals, and sustains a range of land uses. Our goals are to ensure the final reclaimed landscape has capability equivalent to that existing prior to development, is integrated with the surrounding area, establishes boreal forest upland and lowland communities, yields water suitable for return to the natural environment, and is planned in direct consultation with local, directly affected stakeholders, and Aboriginal communities of interest.

Because we progressively reclaim former mining areas as soon as they are available, rather than delay until the end of mine life, areas available for reclamation vary from year to year depending on the mine plan. Cumulative reclamation continues to increase annually.

Syncrude participates in the Mining Association of Canada’s Towards Sustainable Mining (TSM) initiative, and endorses its Mine Closure Framework. This framework outlines expectations regarding the closure of a mine, including a commitment to work with communities to develop closure plans and identify values that will be incorporated into reclamation objectives, and to research and innovate improved mine closure and monitoring technologies.

Meeting Regulatory Commitments

Syncrude adheres to the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, which requires us to return the land we use to a productive capability equivalent to that of the pre-disturbance landscape. A mine closure plan is submitted to the government every ten years, with a mid-term update; a mine reclamation plan is submitted every three years, supplemented with annual progress reports. These complement our commitment to the Alberta Energy Regulator’s expectations regarding tailings management.

Each Syncrude Joint Venture Participant is liable for its share of financial security regarding the operation’s closure obligation. Information on the Mine Financial Security Program for coal and oil sands companies can be found on the website of the Alberta Energy Regulator.

Ongoing Reclamation Activities

Syncrude reclaimed 54 hectares in 2015 and planted over 272,000 tree and shrub seedlings, including around 1,500 water sedge in wetland areas. From this total, we planted six species of trees and 13 species of shrubs, and planted or seeded nine native species of grass.

Seeds used in reclamation activities are sourced and collected from undisturbed areas on and around our leases. We work with an Alberta-based nursery to extract, process and store a wide variety of seed pods, cones and other vegetative material. All the cleaned seeds are registered by original location and shipped to the provincial seed storage facility, which keeps them until needed.

More than 3.6 million cubic meters (m3) of surface soil, peat and subsoil material were salvaged in 2015 for use in reclamation, with LFH (leaf litter/fibric/humic, or the top layer recovered from the forest floor) material being placed directly to promote the most productive propagule germination of the native seed bank. Currently, in total, we have stockpiled over 78 million m3 of soil material. In addition, we rough mulch the tops and stumps of non-merchantable trees to add large pieces of woody debris into the cover soil. This leads to a varied surface which efficiently captures moisture and forms microsites attractive to plants and animals.

Permanent Land Reclaimed

Trees and Shrubs Planted

Reclamation of our former East Mine is ongoing. This area is approximately 11.5 square kilometers in size and bordered by Highway 63 south of our main plant site. Reclamation began in 2000 using composite tails as the landform substrate, or underlying layer. Construction of a fen research watershed was completed in 2012 and results to date are surpassing expectations; after four growing seasons, excellent progress is being made to establish the water and carbon balance and, in 2015, evidence showed the ecosystem is moving toward becoming a net carbon accumulating system.

The plant community in the fen watershed, including mosses, continues to develop and plant health is comparable to the same plants found on a natural site. A 2015 vegetation diversity study showed that about 40 per cent of the area is characterized by peat forming species, 48 per cent by upland species and 12 per cent by marsh plants. The fen will continue to be closely monitored and studied by a multi-disciplinary research team for years to come. Lessons learned are being shared with other members of Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA).

Syncrude’s efforts to design and establish the fen, the first constructed wetland to be built on a foundation of oil sands tailings, were recognized with a 2015 Emerald Award for Environmental Excellence.

We are now reclaiming the 85-hectare area immediately adjacent, known as the Kingfisher wetland. It will feature both upland forest and wetland areas, and the reclamation strategy is being informed by lessons learned from the Sandhill Fen. Land-forming work commenced in 2015, and soil placement and vegetation planting is expected to be completed in 2017.

The two watershed systems are interconnected, with the Sandhill Fen draining water into the Kingfisher wetland, which will in turn drain into the Mildred Lake reservoir and eventually into the Athabasca River. Reclamation of the remainder of the East Mine will continue with land-forming in 2017. It is expected to be fully reclaimed by 2024.

Reclamation in our former West Mine began in late 2012 using the method of capping fluid fine tails with water. This area is now capped with water and will be monitored as it evolves towards a fully functional, healthy aquatic ecosystem.

Further discussion on reclamation of the East and West mines can be found in the Tailings chapter.

Data Source: Government of Alberta Regional Reclamation and Disturbance Tracking by Company, to December 31, 2014

(Above) The reclaimed South Bison Hills was once the site of an oil sands mine.

Alberta Wetland Policy Consultation

Syncrude actively participated in multi-stakeholder consultations on the development of a provincial wetland policy from 2005 to 2012. These consultations weighed environmental, social and economic outcomes, and informed government policy. The Alberta Wetland Policy was released in September 2013 after several years of discussion and compromise from non-government organizations, academia, agriculture, oil and gas, forestry and other stakeholders. After its release, Syncrude continued to be involved in multi-stakeholder discussions on the implementation of the policy and the Alberta Wetland Mitigation Directive that supports it. The policy and directive became effective in the Green Area, which is where Syncrude operates, in 2016. Details can be found on the Alberta Environment and Parks website. Wetlands cover about 20 per cent of Alberta, and more than 90 per cent of these are peatlands (primarily bogs and fens).

Reclamation Research

Syncrude invested over $54 million on research and development efforts in 2015; of this, over half was directed to environmental projects such as our reclamation research programs and collaborative efforts through COSIA.

One particular study resulted in an amendment to our operating approval from the Alberta Energy Regulator that reduces the thickness of soil capping on reclaimed land from 1.5 metres to one metre. Multi-year research involving various disciplines demonstrated that a one metre thickness was sufficient for soil cover and landscape productivity. The decision will result in less land disturbance for soil stockpiling and an estimated savings of around $400 million over the next 10 years.

We also provide financial grants to Canadian and U.S. universities to assist us in advancing oil sands reclamation science. Among those are:

Performance Data

2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
Cleared1(cumulative hectares) 2,597 3,719 3,526 3,876 3,528
Disturbed: land used for mine or plant purposes1(cumulative hectares) 18,287 19,155 19,552 19,983 20,085
Total active footprint - mine and plant site footprint1(cumulative hectares) 25,858 27,861 28,120 28,951 28,963
Soils placed -€“ land available for revegetation1(cumulative hectares) 1,202 1,086 1,075 1,047 1,080
Temporary reclamation1(cumulative hectares) 690 690 668 632 703
Permanent land reclaimed1(hectares per year) 200 330 103 81 54
Permanent land reclaimed1,2,3(cumulative hectares) 3,186 3,316 3,403 3,516 3,568
Trees and shrubs planted (# per year) 356,000 954,000 305,000 156,867 272,330
Trees and shrubs planted (millions, cumulative) 5.9 6.9 7.2 7.4 7.7

1 For a full list of definitions regarding land use and reclamation in Alberta’s oil sands, visit here.
2 Includes land certified by the Alberta Government.
3 Numbers reflect the addition of all newly reclaimed areas as well as any reclamation losses due to redisturbance that may occur. Syncrude promotes early reclamation of unused land when practical. This may result in future re-disturbance of areas that have been reclaimed in the past. Reclaimed areas may be selected as project sites, pipeline or power line corridors, or work may be necessary to maintain the integrity of the underlying structure.
Note: Syncrude conducts quality assurance checks of reclamation data in support of the Alberta Government geospatial database submission requirement. This process involves survey and investigation to verify field conditions, interpretation of air photos and satellite imagery to adjust boundaries, and analysis of historic data and classification. This work can result in adjustments to previously reported information.