Land use & biodiversity
Re-establishing habitat to restore the natural diversity of plants and animals in areas where we operate is an integral part of the work we do. We plan for it before we even begin development of a project. The goal of our abandonment and reclamation efforts is to reduce habitat loss, reduce the impact on wildlife and manage and minimize our inactive wells. We also aim to involve and support local communities and businesses in our reclamation activities.
Since no two areas across our operations are the same, we give a lot of thought to our land use approach during the life of our projects. In our oil and gas operations in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, the reclamation process can begin immediately after a well is no longer producing. In other cases, like at our oil sands projects in northern Alberta, we often choose to reuse already disturbed land for other purposes and reclaim it once we’re finished with all activity. While the result may be that we don’t receive as many reclamation certificates for those areas in the short term, this approach helps to reduce the total amount of land that’s disturbed in the long run.
We are also going beyond reclaiming the land we’re using for our current commercial oil sands projects and concentrating on restoring the land that was disturbed by historic industry exploration activities and practices from 20 to 40 years ago. Many old corridors from seismic exploration and access routes have been slow to return to forest cover. By focusing on specific restoration treatments for these older disturbances and by measuring the effectiveness of these treatments, we are able to better understand what it takes to successfully restore forest cover and reduce impacts to biodiversity of the boreal forest.
Managing land use
We track and manage wells throughout their life cycle, from planning through production to abandonment and reclamation, and have a long-term strategy in place to manage our inactive wells. This strategy includes a single entry abandonment and reclamation approach where we combine both activities to help minimize the number of winter roads we have to build to a site, resulting in potentially fewer impacts to local wildlife. By targeting the completion of abandonment and reclamation activities together, we expect to be able to reduce the individual cost per well site and maximize the amount of sites reclaimed annually.
We continue to be committed to our abandonment efforts and to reclaiming wells in a timely manner despite the low oil price environment. By realizing cost efficiencies in our supply chain and reducing the cost of abandonment and reclamation per well, we believe we can reclaim more land and reduce our inventory of inactive wells.
In 2015, we abandoned 257 wells across our operations, which is the first step towards reclamation. We also submitted reclamation certificates that covered 600 sites.
Regulatory process and stakeholder engagement
Before any oil sands project can begin, companies must develop and receive approval for how affected areas will be reclaimed after the project has been completed. This includes outlining the measures we will take to protect biodiversity during and after operations, plans for the rehabilitation of any contaminated soils, and the reestablishment of native vegetation on the site. Reclamation certificates can only be issued once long-term monitoring shows that the reclaimed land meets the standards outlined by the Government of Alberta.
Prior to decommissioning a well, we consult with stakeholders, including Aboriginal communities, to understand and address any concerns associated with the reclamation of our sites. As part of our long-term agreements with our Aboriginal communities, we outline processes for ongoing engagement with each community to consult on potential business development opportunities during all stages of operations, including project completion and site closure.
We make every effort to reduce the area of land we need for the operations phase of our oil sands projects. During the initial construction phase of a project, some land must be cleared to allow for areas such as ditches along roads and slopes around well pads. After the initial construction phase of a project has been completed, we return these areas back to forest cover, which is usually about 25 percent of the total footprint. Once all construction activities have been completed we can reclaim another 15 percent of the land, meaning that up to 40 percent of the total footprint will be undergoing what we call interim reclamation. Restoring land in the interim rather than waiting until the project is finished helps shrink our total disturbance, both in terms of how much land we use, as well as the length of time spent on the land. In the end, this approach helps reduce the impact on wildlife. We’ve shared our interim reclamation approach with Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA).
Game-changing solution to restore land
In 2015, we worked with Devon and ConocoPhillips through COSIA on a joint-industry project (JIP) to pilot amphibious vehicles at our operations.
Tests of the amphibious vehicles showed the potential to:
- Restore more than two times the area of land per day compared to standard machines
- Extend the traditional January and February reclamation season to be year round
- Complete the work at a lower cost and with minimal environmental impact
Pictured here is one of the amphibious vehicles crossing wet terrain during the pilot in November 2015. Learn more about the amphibious vehicles JIP.
Christina Lake borrow pit reclamations
In early 2015, we completed reclamation on two borrow pits at our Christina Lake facility. Borrow pits are areas where soil or gravel has been removed to be used somewhere else. To reclaim the borrow pits at Christina Lake, we incorporated wetland features including two small ponds and a meandering channel. This is the first major reclamation project for us at Christina Lake given that the project only began operations in 2002. We plan on reclaiming another borrow pit in 2016.
Images of our reclamation efforts at our Christina Lake facility. We planted coniferous trees to help return the area to forest cover.
All of our oil sands projects go through a detailed environmental impact assessment (EIA) prior to being approved by the Government of Alberta. Issues of biodiversity are rigorously dealt with in these EIAs. As part of this regulatory approval process, we’re required to submit comprehensive caribou mitigation and monitoring plans.
We plan our activities to avoid sensitive times for wildlife, such as migration and nesting periods for birds and calving season for caribou. Cenovus has been using specialized geomatics software tools to improve our biodiversity performance by helping to identify, map and make mitigation recommendations. Some of those mitigation recommendations have included optimizing the construction of our projects to avoid ecologically sensitive areas, suggesting the most appropriate timing, or advising on methods for construction and reclamation. We also support a number of regional biodiversity monitoring initiatives.
Our history of caribou habitat restoration
Cenovus has made woodland caribou a key environment and biodiversity priority. Woodland caribou are listed as threatened under the Canadian Species At Risk Act. Our caribou-related initiatives include participation and leadership at COSIA, where a coordinated caribou program is being developed by the oil sands industry. We’ve also been working on major habitat restoration programs across northeast Alberta since 2008.
We have a long history of caribou habitat restoration in northern Alberta near our operations.
In 2008, we launched a pilot project to test new restoration techniques on former oil sands exploration sites near our Foster Creek operations. The techniques included digging up the soil, forming it into mounds and planting coniferous trees in the mounded soil. The common industry practice at the time was to take a passive approach to restoration, leaving the soil as-is and letting the trees regenerate on their own. Taking an active approach to restoration by mounding the soil and planting trees was ground breaking, and Cenovus was the first company in the oil sands to do this. The pilot project was successful, restoration was accelerated and the rate of tree growth in the area tripled.
After the initial pilot, we switched our focus from restoring oil sands exploration sites to linear features, which are corridors that have been cleared for oil and gas seismic exploration and access routes. The project is called Linear Deactivation (LiDea) and the goal was to restore wildlife habitat in northern Alberta, including that of the woodland caribou. Using the same treatments as our pilot project – mounding the soil and planting coniferous trees – LiDea applied treatment to the corridors so they return to their natural state. We shared this approach with other oil sands companies through COSIA.
- In 2012, we expanded the project further, restoring nine oil sands exploration well sites and incorporating new techniques like adding woody debris to the soil as we mounded it
- In 2013, we began our large-scale LiDea pilot project and had restored 370 square kilometres of land near our Foster Creek operations by the time the pilot was completed in 2015
In 2015, we initiated the 10-year Cenovus Caribou Habitat Restoration Project, which is an unprecedented initiative to help protect caribou near our operations in northeastern Alberta. Using our unique combination of proven forestry techniques tested during our three-year LiDea pilot project, we plan to restore old oil and gas seismic lines, access roads and other types of linear disturbance. Over the course of the project, we expect to achieve a more than tenfold expansion of the caribou habitat work we’ve already completed, treating forest fragmentation within an area of approximately 3,900 square kilometres. This is the largest single area of caribou habitat restoration undertaken by a company anywhere in the world. The project also includes plans to plant approximately four million trees. Devon Canada Corporation, Imperial Oil Limited and Canadian Natural Resources Limited have contributed a portion of the funding for restoration work taking place in 2016.
Did you know?
We’ve planted over 270,000 trees to restore forest habitat since 2013 as part of our LiDea project.
Collaborating through COSIA to improve biodiversity
Cenovus is partnering with other oil sands companies through COSIA on a number of initiatives to help restore caribou habitat in northeast Alberta.
Restoration zone prioritization project
Through COSIA, Cenovus is leading a study to identify zones for caribou habitat restoration throughout northeast Alberta. The project will look at existing industrial disturbances as well as the mineral resources underground to determine where there are large areas of caribou habitat that can be restored quickly with minimal likelihood of being disturbed again by industry. Restoration areas will be prioritized based on what is believed to have the highest benefit to the caribou herds while taking into consideration existing and future oil and gas and forestry operations. The project emphasizes planning on a larger scale, working to reclaim entire townships rather than the traditional approach of restoring individual well sites and seismic lines. The restoration framework that’s created as a result of the project is expected to be used to inform regulatory policies on caribou habitat restoration.
Regional Industry Caribou Collaboration
Cenovus has co-led the formation of a group of companies from the oil sands and forestry sectors that will collaborate with the Government of Alberta and other institutions to implement the Regional Industry Caribou Collaboration (RICC). The collaboration, which is through COSIA, will take a regional approach to caribou habitat restoration and will combine monitoring and research efforts with the goal of improving caribou conservation.
Did you know?
We worked with the Miistakis Institute at Calgary’s Mount Royal University to develop an app for field staff to record wildlife sightings near our operations, called the Wild Watch App. Tracking these sightings helps us continue to improve the design of our oil sands projects to reduce their impact on wildlife. Over the past two years, we’ve collected more than 2,000 wildlife reports through the app. We’ve shared the Wild Watch technology with our peers through COSIA, and Shell is now using the technology.