Canada’s oil sands industry is committed to reducing its footprint, reclaiming all lands affected by operations and maintaining biodiversity.
Reclamation is an ongoing process during the life of a project. Oil sands operators must develop a plan to reclaim the land and have it approved by government as part of any project’s approval process. Companies apply for government reclamation certification when vegetation is mature, the landscape is self-sustaining and the land can be returned to the Crown for public use.
Alberta’s oil sands lie under 142,000 km2 of land. The oil sands area actively being mined is 904 km2, an area slightly larger than the City of Calgary. Over the past 40 years, only 0.02 per cent of Canada’s Boreal forest has been disturbed by oil sands mining operations. In Alberta alone, approximately 90,000 km2, or 24 per cent, of the boreal forest is protected from development.
Planning for a sustainable landscape
From the start of any development, producers strive to reduce their impact by avoiding sensitive habitats, minimizing the area needed for well sites and working with other users to share roads and pipelines.
Because the oil sands industry is still relatively young, much of the industry’s reclamation activity is currently in the early stages of development. Companies are evolving their operations and the technology used to reduce their footprints and continue pursuing ways to minimize their impact on the land.
Once lands are reclaimed and ready for seeding, additional time is required for vegetation grow:
- Two years for growth on grasslands
- Four years for growth on forests
In situ drilling
Eighty per cent of the oil sands are accessible by in situ methods only (bitumen is separated from the sand underground and pumped to the surface). In situ’s land disturbance is 10 to 15 per cent of a similar sized mining operation and produces no tailings ponds.
When an in situ well is no longer productive, it is decommissioned. To return the land to a sustainable landscape, operators must cap the well and remove equipment, clean up any contaminants, replace soil and replant vegetation. The process includes monitoring, seeding, fertilizing, tree planting, seed collecting, topsoil salvaging and replacing and landform creation and contouring.
A reclamation certificate is issued when producers return reclaimed lands to the Government of Alberta. The state of the lands must meet landowner approval and regulatory requirements.
In mining operations, soil and vegetation are assessed on an ongoing basis. Once an area is no longer needed for mining activities, the operator contours it for drainage, replaces topsoil, and plants vegetation, trees and shrubs. An important aspect of land reclamation for mining operations includes constructing the subsoil landform.
Remediation of tailings ponds (pits that contain a mixture of water, clay, sand and residual bitumen) is another aspect of the oil sands mine reclamation process.
Once reclamation is complete, monitoring activities begin. It can take 15 or more years to effectively establish a successful ecosystem. Reclamation certificates are only issued when long-term monitoring demonstrates the reclaimed land meets the objectives of equivalent land capability.
Industry in Action
Returning former mines and tailings areas to landscapes such as forests is part of Syncrude's ongoing commitment to responsible oil sands development. In March 2008, Syncrude's Gateway Hill was certified by the Government of Alberta as fully reclaimed.