Syncrude: Partnering with Leading Minds
Syncrude’s environmental research leads to a productive future for former mine sites.
Even before production began in 1978, Syncrude understood the scale and impact its operations would have on the existing landscape. Reclamation research helps achieve the company’s long-term vision to create a landscape that supports a healthy diversity of plants and animals, and sustains a range of land uses.
Significant progress has been made over the last 50 years with about 4,600 hectares of former mine sites either reclaimed or ready for re-vegetation activities, and more than 8.5 million tree and shrub seedlings planted throughout reclaimed areas. The oldest reclaimed area was planted in 1983.
Recognizing the important role of wetlands, Syncrude launched the Sandhill Fen Watershed Research Project in 2008 to learn how to incorporate peat-forming wetlands into reclamation. The Sandhill Fen is the largest reclaimed wetland in the oil sands and the first ever landform constructed on a foundation of oil sands tailings – a byproduct of the oil sands extraction process. After seven growing seasons, the area is attracting wildlife and providing valuable information for the future.
All tailings must be safely reclaimed, and Syncrude has led the way in developing technologies that enable this outcome. “We’ve invested $3 billion to develop three technologies to manage our tailings and meet our commitments to Albertans,” says Greg Fuhr, Syncrude Vice President, Mining & Extraction.
Composite Tailings technology, which adds gypsum and sand to fluid fine tailings, was used to reclaim the former East Mine into a mixture of upland forests and wetlands. This mine will be fully reclaimed within the next few years.
Centrifuged Tailings technology separates water from the tailings to create a clay material. It is being used to reclaim sections of Syncrude’s North Mine.
End-Pit Lake technology, or water capping, places fluid fine tailings in a depleted mine pit. The material is then capped with water to create a lake. This was used to reclaim the former West Mine. A comprehensive research and monitoring program is helping optimize and validate this technology.
The wood bison herd, now a permanent fixture on the Syncrude landscape, also started as a research project in 1993 to assess the ability of reclaimed lands to support large animals.
The Sandhill Fen is the largest reclaimed wetland in the oil sands and the industry’s first example of reclamation over a tailings substrate called Composite Tailings. It received an Emerald Award for Environmental Excellence in 2015.
“It has taken tremendous vision and leadership on the part of Syncrude to encourage and support long-term reclamation research programs like the Sandhill Fen Research Watershed.”
— Prof. Jan H. Ciborowski, University of Windsor
“The Sandhill Fen’s construction, management and research contributions represent a qualitative leap in enlightened ecological stewardship at a large scale. Syncrude’s effort is in a class by itself.”
—Prof. A. Lee Foote, University of Alberta
Wood bison graze on reclaimed land at the Beaver Creek Bison Ranch, which is managed in partnership with the Fort McKay First Nation. The herd numbers around 300 head and has received conservation certification status.
“I was astonished at the biodiversity of life found on Syncrude’s bison pastures. We identified 65 bird, 15 mammal, the boreal chorus frog and wood frog, and literally dozens of invertebrate species, including several kinds of dung beetles found for the first time in this region.”
—Wes Olson, Bison Management Specialist
Base Mine Lake
Base Mine Lake is the oil sands industry’s first commercial demonstration of End-Pit Lake reclamation technology. It reclaims mine tailings by placing them in a depleted mine pit and then capping the tailings with water to create a lake.
Gateway Hill was reclaimed in 1983. In 2008 it was declared by the Government of Alberta as the first certified reclamation in the oil sands.
South Bison Hills
South Bison Hills is a 380-hectare area reclaimed from Syncrude’s mining operations in the late 1990s.