Land

Canada's oil sands industry is working to reduce the size of its footprint in order to maintain the biodiversity of the region and to support the function of natural ecosystems.

Using land for oil sands operations

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 three per cent, 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 per cent of the oil sands surface area are recoverable by drilling (in situ) methods which require very little surface land disturbance.

Map of Canada showing the size of the oil sands within Alberta

Regulating Land Use

Reliable, long-term environmental monitoring based on sound science is in everybody’s best interests. Approvals from numerous regulatory agencies are required at every phase, from construction and operation to decommissioning and reclamation.

Oil sands producers return land used for operations to a self-sustaining landscape, equivalent to the pre-development state. For in situ projects, pre-disturbance assessments and annual conservation and reclamation plans (which describe areas that will be disturbed in that year and the mitigation measures to be employed) must be submitted for approval.

The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) regulates land reclamation, reviews applications and carries out inspections to ensure compliance with the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act (EPEA) and the Public Lands Act.

To ensure reclamation plans get carried out, the government requires financial guarantees for each mining project. Oil sands mining operators contribute to the Mine Financial Security Program, a contingency fund held by the government for reclamation of land impacted by mines. The funds are used if operators do not carry out their reclamation plans. To date, there has never been a need to draw on this fund, so it continues to grow.

Reclaiming the land

Reclamation is the act of returning the land to a sustainable landscape. Alberta law requires all lands disturbed by oil sands operations be reclaimed, which is managed by the companies developing reclamation plans that span the life of the project. 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.

Effective land management

CAPP and the industry are active participants in regional land use planning, such as the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan (LARP). LARP has established new environmental frameworks to safeguard regional air and surface water quality and increase the amount of land set aside for conservation to more than two million hectares. Through the Land-Use framework and LARP, the Government of Alberta has committed to setting cumulative environmental limits to inform oil sands development. 

Maintaining biodiversity

When planning their projects, oil sands operators strive to avoid sensitive habitats and protected areas, optimize the area needed for mining and in situ well sites, work with other land users to reduce the disturbance footprint by sharing roads and pipelines and employ technologies to minimize emissions.

Innovation

Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) is an alliance of oil sands producers focused on accelerating the pace of improvement in environmental performance in Canada's oil sands through collaborative action and innovation. COSIA's work has focused on reducing the footprint intensity and impact of oil sands mining and in situ drilling operations on the land and wildlife of northern Alberta.

Industry in Action

CARIBOU HABITAT RESTORATION

Oil sands companies are now collaborating to restore caribou habitat in northeastern Alberta. During oil and gas exploration activities over the past decades, fragmentation occurred in the boreal forest as corridors were cut for seismic exploration and access routes for exploration drilling. In recent years, there have been ongoing improvements in exploration and restoration techniques that have allowed oil and gas producers to minimize disturbance and achieve faster recovery of the forest. However, for older linear corridors under passive regeneration, return to forest cover has been very slow.

Three major COSIA initiatives address legacy linear disturbances and return the boreal forest to high quality caribou habitat. The first major projects were the Algar Historic Restoration Project (Algar) and the Linear Deactivation Project (LiDea), both aimed at rehabilitating seismic lines. The third initiative is the Cenovus Caribou Habitat Restoration Project, which benefits from the learnings of earlier projects and expands habitat restoration to the landscape scale. This is the largest single area of caribou habitat restoration work undertaken by any company anywhere in the world. 

MANAGING IMPACTS TO WILDLIFE NEAR IN SITU OIL SANDS OPERATIONS

Devon Canada has oil sands interests in northeast Alberta. Impacts to wildlife, biodiversity and land are major topics of interest for stakeholders of these projects, and Devon is proactively addressing them through its In Situ Oil Sands Wildlife Mitigation and Monitoring Program.

Devon's program is a multi-pronged commitment to monitor wildlife populations, conduct environmental research to fill key data gaps and mitigate negative impacts to biodiversity in and around project areas. The program has been endorsed by regulators as best in industry for such initiatives, and comprises five key elements:
  • Wildlife mitigation commitments
  • Long-term wildlife mitigation and monitoring program
  • Regional caribou collaboration and research program
  • BearSmart practices
  • Innovative wildlife inventory techniques for remote areas and hard-to-detect species

Learnings from the program have enabled Devon to improve its performance in predicting, reducing and mitigating impacts to wildlife.

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