Land Reclamation

Performance Overview

  • Permanently reclaimed 300 hectares; cumulative reclamation reaches 3,300 hectares
  • Planted approximately 954,000 shrub and tree seedlings, and 5,000 cuttings; cumulative planting now over seven million
  • Announced $2.6 million reclamation research chair at the University of Saskatchewan

Our Policy

Syncrude will ensure the land disturbed by our operation is returned to a stable, safe condition that is capable of supporting biologically self-sustaining communities of plants and animals. Our long-term vision is to create a landscape that sustains an integrated mosaic of land uses that meet stakeholder expectations.

Our policy adheres to the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act which requires Syncrude to return the land we use to a productive capability equivalent to that of the pre-disturbance landscape.

Reclamation Plan Provides Outlook to 2070-90

Syncrude is required by Alberta legislation to submit a reclamation and closure plan every 10 years, with a mid-term update provided five years after the submission. We provided our update to regulators in 2011. This plan is separate from, but consistent, with our ERCB Directive 074 submission which outlines our tailings management plan.

The reclamation plan outlines in detail the various elements involved in closure of our operation up to end-of-mine life for our Mildred Lake site and Aurora North site, between 2070 and 2090. It includes information on our regulatory framework, regional planning, consultation, landform design, water management, soil conservation and management, materials balance, forest resources and timber salvage, upland vegetation, wetland reclamation, biodiversity establishment and monitoring, and reclamation monitoring and research.

The closure plan also provides an overview and update on modelling and activities to improve and develop reclamation science, addressing key issues such as landform evolution, water management, salts and their effects on soils, vegetation and surface water, and ecosystem design for establishing natural plant and animal communities.

Reclamation Progression*

*2070-90 is approximate end-of-mine life for Mildred Lake and Aurora North

Creating a Self-Sustaining Landscape

Our reclamation 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, such as neighbouring Aboriginal communities and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.

Performance objectives include that the land will be suitable for commercial timber production, extensive areas are returned to a natural state and suitable for traditional land uses (hunting, trapping, fishing and harvesting of traditional plants), and wildlife habitat is deemed to be within the natural variability in the region.

To ensure a regional approach to reclamation, and to foster the use of reclamation best practices, Syncrude regularly consults with other operators and openly shares the results of our environmental research.

Ongoing Reclamation Activities

Reclamation of our former East Mine area is ongoing. This area is approximately 11.5 square kilometers in size and is bordered by Highway 63 south of our main plant site and upgrader. It was part of our original operation when Syncrude began production in 1978. Reclamation began in 2000 using composite tails technology.

In our former West Mine area, also part of our original operation, reclamation began in late 2012 using the method of capping fluid fine tails with water.

Further discussion on reclamation of these areas can be found in the Tailings chapter.

Research on Soil Containing Hydrocarbons

Pre-disturbed soil conditions in the area of our Aurora North Mine have resulted in unique vegetation communities which Aboriginal stakeholders expect us to return after mining. The soil also contains extensive naturally occurring petroleum hydrocarbons, such as "tarballs", which may present unique reclamation challenges. A 40-hectare watershed research project is evaluating these challenges and the most effective salvage and soil cover design strategies for reclamation. The study is a multi-disciplinary, collaborative project involving research scientists from Syncrude, the University of Alberta, University of Saskatchewan, consultants and industry partners through the Canadian Oil Sands Network for Research and Development (CONRAD).

Watershed Research

Research continues on a number of watersheds established on our reclaimed land. Announced in 2012, Syncrude will also provide half the funding for the $2.6-million Chair in Hydrogeological Characterization of Oil Sands Mine Closure Landforms, at the University of Saskatchewan. The other half of the funding is being provided by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). The five-year project will improve reclamation by understanding how groundwater moves through landforms. In addition, Syncrude contributes financial grants to other Canadian and U.S. universities. Research supports the long-term data collection, instrument maintenance and database management of soil, climate and hydrology monitoring of these areas.

Bioengineering Helps Control Erosion

Fascines are being evaluated as a natural erosion control technique in reclamation areas. Wood harvesters are used to collect willow and poplar trees, which have the ability to produce roots and stems from cuttings. These trees are delimbed and bundled together to produce a fascine. Tree tops from merchantable harvest operations are also bundled together and used as fascines. These structures have the ability to slow down the flow of water on reclaimed landscapes and help minimize erosion.

Around 5,000 stems of balsam poplar and willow were harvested to create 164 fascine bundles that will continue to grow. Previously constructed fascines are now fully established and wildlife have been observed. 

Rough Mulching Aids Reclamation Efforts

A salvaging technique developed by Syncrude is helping to avoid soil compaction on reclamation areas and create diverse microsites for plants and animals.

Before soil salvage, the tops and stumps of non-merchantable trees are recovered using a method called "rough mulching." This adds large pieces of woody debris into the cover soil. When soil is being placed, this coarse material creates surface roughness. This, in turn, creates microsites and moisture traps for vegetation and erosion control. There is also faster self-establishment of native plant species from the seed bank and various propagules present in the soil.

Land Rough Mulch

Example of rough mulching at fen reclamation project. 

Land Use

2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Cleared (cumulative hectares)
-- 2,742 3,072 2,597 3,719
Disturbed: land used for mine or plant purposes (cumulative hectares)
-- 16,670 16,954 18,287 19,155
Total land disturbed – mine and plant site footprint (cumulative hectares)
21,912 24,289 25,265 25,858 27,861
Soils placed – land available for revegetation (cumulative hectares)1
- 1,025 1,216 1,202 1,086
Temporary reclamation (cumulative hectares)1
- 452 422 690 690
Permanent land reclaimed (hectares per year)1
32 64 130 200 330
242 (target)
Permanent land reclaimed (cumulative hectares)1,2,3
3,441 3,505 3,572 3,186 3,316
Trees and shrubs planted (# per year)
162,000 143,000 250,000 356,000 954,000
Trees and shrubs planted (millions, cumulative)
5.2 5.3 5.5 5.9 6.9

Note: In 2009, the Government of Alberta introduced new definitions for oil sands reclamation. These are reflected in our reporting data. Click here for a complete list of definitions.

  1. In 2010, the Government of Alberta established a new definition for “permanent reclamation.” For an area to be considered reclaimed, the definition states it must be revegetated in accordance with government-approved plans. Syncrude’s prior definition of a reclaimed area was land that, at a minimum, had been shaped, formed, capped with soil and ready for revegetation. This change resulted in the reclassification of land previously reported by Syncrude in our reclamation numbers. We have amended our reclamation numbers to ensure consistency with government reports.
  2. Includes land certified by the Alberta Government.
  3. Numbers include the addition of all newly reclaimed areas as well as any reclamation losses due to redisturbance that may occur. Every effort is made to minimize disturbance of permanently reclaimed areas; however, by progressively reclaiming we may reclaim areas that are later required for operations or other reclamation activities, such as soil stockpiling.

Sharing of Reclamation Material with Other Operators

Where feasible, Syncrude and the neighbouring Suncor operation are coordinating the use of reclamation material as part of regional land-use planning. In 2012, for example, we optimized the reclamation material available in the Fort Hills area, located at the northern boundary of our Aurora North site. After salvaging material in the area for our own reclamation activities, the remaining surface soil and subsoil was stockpiled on Suncor’s lease for their use.  

Tree and Shrub Seedlings Planted

Oil Sand Pie Charts

Data Source: Government of Alberta Regional Reclamation and Disturbance Tracking by Company, to December 31, 2012.

Permanent Land - Reclaimed

Note: In 2010, the Government of Alberta established a new definition for “permanent reclamation." For an area to be considered reclaimed, the definition states it must be revegetated in accordance with government-approved plans. Syncrude’s prior definition of a reclaimed area was land that, at a minimum, had been shaped, formed, capped with soil and ready for revegetation. This change resulted in the reclassification of land previously reported by Syncrude in our reclamation numbers.