Canada’s oil sands industry is committed to reducing its footprint, reclaiming all lands affected by operations and maintaining biodiversity.Reclamation, which is the act of returning the land to a sustainable landscape, 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.
Planning for a sustainable landscape
Since operations began in the 1960s, about 11 per cent of the active mining footprint has been or is being reclaimed by industry. Reclaimed land will be certified by government when it can be returned for public use. (Source: Oil Sands Portal, 2016)
Status of all land affected by oil sands mining
Source: Alberta Environment OSIP
Given the long life cycle of oil sands operations (a typical oil sands mine has a 25 to 50 year lifespan and in situ operation runs for 10 to 15 years), and because the oil sands industry is still relatively young, much of the industry's reclamation activity is still in early stages. Companies are evolving their operations and technology used to reduce their footprints, and continue to pursue ways to manage our impact on land.
Oil and natural gas companies are required by provincial regulations to return lands they disturb to a self-sustaining natural state as close as reasonable to its original condition.
- Contouring and erosion control: Disturbed surface areas are re-contoured to blend with the original landform. Adequate erosion control will provide for site stability and generally is achieved by successful revegetation.
- Re-vegetation: The establishment of a self-sustaining native plant community is a benchmark of reclamation success, including the control of noxious weeds.
- Reclamation certification: Following reclamation, the landscape is evaluated to ensure there are no erosion or drainage issues, topsoil quality and quantity is confirmed, and the health of vegetation (e.g., plant density, height, productivity, diversity, etc.) is adequate.
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.
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). Land disturbance with in situ drilling 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.
Industry in action
Since so much of northern Alberta is composed of Boreal wetlands, learning how to regrow them is very important for reclaiming mined oil sands. A fully functioning fen provides habitat for numerous plants, birds and other wildlife. And it’s a carbon sink, which means it naturally locks away greenhouse gases. Syncrude’s Sandhill Fen is not only one of the first attempts to recreate a fen, it’s an ongoing research facility.
Learn more about this reclamation project at energytomorrow.ca/sandhill_fen.
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.