Land use and 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 intent 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. Across our assets in British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, reclamation may proceed once a well and all associated infrastructure is abandoned. In some of our northern oil sands assets, sites may be re-used instead of constructing new clearings. While the result may be that we don’t receive as many reclamation certificates for those areas in the short term, this approach in the long run helps to reduce the total amount of land that’s disturbed.
We are also going beyond reclaiming the land we’re using for our current commercial oil sands projects and concentrating on restoring land that was disturbed by historic industry exploration activities and practices from up to 40 years ago. Many old corridors from seismic exploration and access roads have been slow to return to forest cover, which can impact species such as caribou. 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 the biodiversity of the boreal forest.
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. These plans include committing to specific measures such as minimizing barriers to wildlife movement and reducing our commercial footprint where possible.
We also 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 to improve our biodiversity performance by helping to identify and map sensitive areas and make mitigation recommendations. Some of those mitigation recommendations include 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 participate in a number of regional biodiversity monitoring initiatives, and we support a large scale approach to caribou recovery. We plan to take the same approach to managing caribou habitat wherever possible at our newly acquired assets in the Deep Basin area of northwest Alberta and northeast British Columbia.
The table below provides an overview of our goals related to biodiversity and provides recent examples of how we’re working towards those goals. Learn more in this section about how we’re managing biodiversity at our operations.
|Our goals and targets10||Our recent performance examples|
Goal: To reduce habitat loss and impact on wildlife, particularly woodland caribou.
Target: As part of the 10-year Cenovus Caribou Habitat Restoration Project, we expect to treat forest fragmentation within an area of approximately 3,900 square kilometres.
10 Notes on definitions:
Goal: a specific desired outcome that Cenovus has some relative control to achieve. A goal may have one or more targets associated.
Target: a specific, near-term objective, typically focused on the change in a measureable key performance indicator (quantitative). Alternatively, the target can be an action (qualitative) which, once completed, can be more clearly demonstrated in the near-term.
Our history of caribou habitat restoration
Cenovus has made woodland caribou, which are listed as threatened under the Canadian Species at Risk Act, a key environment and biodiversity priority. We’ve been working on major habitat restoration programs across northeast Alberta since 2008. We believe that caribou and industrial activity can co-exist, and that the oil and gas industry can play a leadership role in protecting and restoring caribou habitat.
We initiated the 10-year Cenovus Caribou Habitat Restoration Project in 2016, which is an unprecedented initiative to help protect caribou near our operations in northeastern Alberta. Using a unique combination of proven forestry techniques tested during our LiDea pilot projects, we plan to restore old oil and gas seismic lines, access roads and other types of disturbances.
Over the course of the project, we expect to treat 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. These measures are expected to reduce forest fragmentation and make it more difficult for predators like wolves to hunt caribou.
In 2016, we treated 370 square kilometres of land and reached approximately 430,000 trees planted cumulatively since 2013 as part of the project. This work was completed collaboratively, with Devon Canada Corporation, Imperial Oil Limited and Canadian Natural Resources Limited contributing a portion of the funding for the 2016 restoration work. Much of the restoration work completed to date has been done by local First Nations contracting companies, and there will continue to be opportunities for Aboriginal businesses to participate in this 10-year initiative.
Our ongoing research and monitoring as part of the project have led to continuous improvements. Our data indicates that habitat, fauna and biodiversity are being restored, which is positioning the caribou population to have the best chance of becoming self-sustaining and stable in the long term. The provincial government has used our results and learnings in their emerging restoration standards and plans for restoration of the Little Smoky Caribou Range. We have shared our research methods and findings with COSIA, ensuring member companies have access to both the design of our project and what we’ve learned.
We were working to restore caribou habitat long before the Cenovus Caribou Habitat Restoration project began. In 2008, we started testing restoration techniques, which were then applied to linear features (corridors that have been cleared for oil and gas seismic exploration and access routes). The goal of this project, called Linear Deactivation (LiDea), was to restore wildlife habitat in northern Alberta, including that of the woodland caribou. The techniques used as part of LiDea included mounding the soil, planting coniferous trees, and distributing natural woody debris on the corridors so they return to their natural state. We shared this approach with other oil sands companies through COSIA.
After the initial LiDea project, we gradually expanded scope and began partnering with other companies to continue to further our caribou habitat restoration efforts.
- In 2012, we restored nine oil sands exploration well sites and tested various combinations of site preparation, planting and woody debris applications
- In 2013, we began our large-scale LiDea pilot project and restored 370 square kilometres of land near our Foster Creek operations
Until recent years, the common industry practice for restoration was to take a passive approach, leaving the soil as-is and letting the trees regenerate on their own. Recognizing that this method made for a slow return to forest cover, we initiated research in the science of forest regeneration starting in 2008. Taking an active approach to restoration was groundbreaking, with Cenovus being the first company in the oil sands to do so. Since that time, we have tested a range of techniques to facilitate the return of natural forest cover, and results from this research and testing have contributed to widespread change in practices in our sector. Using techniques such as mounding the soil and planting trees helped to accelerate restoration, tripling the rate of tree growth in the area.
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. This includes leading a study to identify and prioritize zones for habitat restoration throughout northeast Alberta. The project looks 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.
In 2016, restoration areas were prioritized based on the greatest potential gain in undisturbed habitat per unit of restoration effort, while also considering existing and potential future oil and gas operations. The results from the prioritization exercise support a working landscape concept, in which space for both industrial operations as well as caribou habitat can be maintained over the next century. The prioritization project will help guide planning on a larger scale, at the level of entire townships rather than the traditional small-scale approach of prioritizing individual well sites and seismic lines. The project results are also expected to be used to inform regulatory policies on caribou habitat restoration. We believe this approach offers the greatest likelihood of maintaining both industrial and ecological values on the landscape for the long term.
Cenovus co-led the formation of a group of companies from the oil sands and forestry sectors that will work with the Government of Alberta and other institutions to implement the Regional Industry Caribou Collaboration (RICC). The collaboration, which is also a contributed project through COSIA, takes a regional approach to caribou habitat restoration and will combine monitoring and research efforts with the goal of improving caribou conservation. The RICC is distinguished by the applied, action-oriented work that is undertaken as well as the regional focus on the Cold Lake and East Side Athabasca caribou herds.
In the summer of 2016, Cenovus completed a large restoration project in Northern Alberta, funded collaboratively with Devon Canada Corporation, Imperial Oil Limited and Canadian Natural Resources Limited. This was part of the Cenovus Caribou Habitat Restoration Project.
Tracking wildlife sightings at our operations
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 three years, we’ve collected more than 2,500 wildlife reports through the app. We’ve shared the Wild Watch technology with our peers through COSIA, and Shell is now using the technology.
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. Our land use 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 have significantly reduced the individual cost per well site and maximized the number of sites reclaimed annually.
The table below provides an overview of our goal related to managing land use and provides recent examples of how we’re working towards the goal. Learn more in this section about how we’re managing land use responsibly.
|Our goal||Our recent performance examples|
To manage our inactive well inventory and improve efficiency around well abandonment and reclamation.
We continue to be committed to our abandonment efforts and to reclaiming wells in a timely manner despite low oil prices and economic volatility. Over the past two years, we’ve kept our reclamation budget intact, and in 2016 our asset retirement budget was one of the largest in the industry.By realizing efficiencies in our supply chain and reducing the cost of abandonment and reclamation per well, we believe we can improve our ability to reclaim land and reduce our inventory of inactive wells. In 2016, we had one of the highest ratios of active versus inactive wells in the industry.
Managing inactive wells across the industry
With low oil prices and market volatility over the past two years, the occurrence of orphaned wells has increased greatly across the industry as more and more companies are filing for bankruptcy. Wells are considered orphaned when the licensee goes bankrupt before abandonment and reclamation can be completed. Any well that becomes orphaned in Alberta is taken over by the Orphan Well Association (OWA). The OWA is an industry-funded, non-profit organization that helps complete abandonment and reclamation on orphaned wells. A $30 million budget is managed through OWA, financed by all oil and gas companies based on their share of the total abandonment and reclamation liability in the province.
Given that the province’s inventory of orphan wells has tripled over the past two years, we supported OWA’s decision to increase levies to the orphan well fund. We believe that as volatility continues in the market, the fund will be an important way to manage risk and the impacts of our industry.
Cenovus has exercised prudent management of our inactive wells and facilities. In 2016, we had about 4,000 inactive wells (about 10 percent of our total wells) and we aim to work through our inactive infrastructure on a rolling 10-year cycle, which means wells are abandoned by the time they are inactive for 10 years. We are on track to achieve this. The inactive wells associated with the recent acquisition of our Deep Basin assets have been managed according to requirements of the Alberta Energy Regulator and the British Columbia Oil and Gas Commission. Going forward, we intend to continue being compliant with regulatory requirements and to be a leader in inactive well management.
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.
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 features 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 COSIA.
We’re continuously looking for ways to improve the way we conduct reclamation. For example, we have started using amphibious vehicles that can drive on land and float on water. These vehicles allow us to conduct land restoration work throughout most of the year, something that could previously only be conducted in the winter months.
Learn more about amphibious vehicles »
Learn more about alternative restoration equipment »