Location, location, location — it’s as important for oil sands developers as it is for other businesses. For Suncor and its industry peers, the sought-after real estate is within the 142,200 square kilometres of land that lies atop Alberta’s oil sands.
Bitumen deposits aside, this land is also very special for another reason. It happens to be part of the Canadian boreal forest, one of the world’s unique environments. The 3.2-million-square-kilometre boreal forest is a vibrant ecosystem full of lakes and wetlands. It’s also home to thousands of plant and animal species and remains an essential part of the lives of many First Nations communities.
Fortunately, the impact on Canada’s boreal forest by oil sands development has been relatively small. According to Alberta Environment, only 0.2 percent of the forest has been disturbed by oil sands mining operations over the past 40 years, and the active oil sands mining footprint is just 715 square kilometres.
Alberta law requires that all lands disturbed by oil sands operations be reclaimed. (Though, as we’ve already discussed in a previous OSQAR, reclamation takes place over the entire life of a project and typically takes decades to achieve.)
Reclamation is a long-term goal with a long-term timeline. As a short-term measure, some oil sands developers have turned to voluntary land conservation initiatives to help address impacts of land disturbance.
For example, Shell recently announced the creation of its True North Forest, a 1,820-acre tract of land in northern Alberta. And Suncor, through its charitable foundation, has invested $2.9 million to conserve more than 4,900 acres of Alberta boreal forest through its partnership with the Alberta Conservation Association, one of our company’s many sustainability initiatives.
While critics of oil sands development laud industry for its voluntary conservation efforts, they want more to be done to protect the boreal forest. Regulations mandating conservation and more protection for wetlands are a couple of the recommendations.
Improvements focus of collaboration
We’ve heard these concerns and agree; we can see ways to do more.
The oil sands industry is collectively committed to mitigating the impacts of oil sands development on the boreal forest and reclaiming the land sooner. The Oil Sands Leadership Initiative (OSLI) has several projects focused on reducing the footprint of in situ oil sands development and accelerating reclamation, and land is already one of four environmental priority areas of the recently formed Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA).
While the boreal forest is undoubtedly unique, the concept of location is still relevant when it comes to resource development. Since this is where the resource exists, some disturbance is simply unavoidable. The good news is that existing conservation efforts and future performance improvements hold significant promise in helping lessen the impacts in this very special place.