Reclaiming Land

Quick Facts

  • An Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute (ABMI) report states the Lower Athabasca region’s living resources are 94% intact. Source: AESRD 2013.
  • Only 0.02% of Canada’s boreal forest has been disturbed by oil sands mining operations over the past 40 years. Source: AESRD 2013.
  • Since operations began in the 1960s, approximately 10% of the active mining footprint has been or is being reclaimed by industry. Source: AESRD 2013.
  • In Alberta alone, approximately 90,000 km2 (34,750 mi2), about 24%, of the boreal forest is protected from development. Source: CAPP 2013.
  • Alberta law requires all lands disturbed by oil sands operations be reclaimed. All companies are required to develop a reclamation plan that spans the life of the project.
  • Reclamation is an ongoing process during the life of a project. Companies apply for government reclamation certification when vegetation is mature, the landscape is self-sustaining and the land can be returned to the Crown for public use.


Oil sands operations, especially open-pit mines, disturb a large area of land. The challenge – and a government requirement – is to return the land to a sustainable landscape (reclamation). A plan to reclaim the land must be developed and approved by government as part of any project’s approval process.

The challenge in perspective

Alberta’s oil sands lie under 142,000 km2 of land (54,800 mi2). Only about 3%, or 4,800 km2 (1,850 mi2), of that land could ever be impacted by the mining method of extracting oil sands. The remaining reserves that underlie 97% of the oil sands surface area are recoverable only by in situ (drilling) methods, which require very little surface land disturbance. The oil sands area actively being mined is 895 km2 (346 mi2), an area slightly larger than the City of Calgary.

How big is 895 km2?

Boreal Map


Reclamation planning begins during the first phase of project design, and a reclamation plan covering the life of the project is required prior to project approval. Oil sands producers perform reclamation on an ongoing basis as operations are completed in a given area. This practice is called progressive reclamation, and the objective is to return the land to equivalent capability as soon as possible.

From the start of any development, producers strive to reduce their impact by avoiding sensitive habitats, minimizing the area needed for well sites and working with other users to share roads and pipelines. 

Given the relatively early stages of oil sand operations at present – a typical oil sands mine has a 25- to 50-year lifespan and an in situ operation runs for 10 to 15 years on average – much of the industry’s reclamation activity is still in the early stages of development. Companies are evolving their operations and the technology used to reduce their footprints and continue pursuing ways to minimize their impact on the land. 

In situ drilling

When an in situ well is no longer productive, it is decommissioned and the land is returned to a sustainable landscape (reclaimed). It takes about six years to fully reclaim the land – from capping the well and removing equipment to cleaning up any contaminants, replacing soil and replanting vegetation. The process includes monitoring, seeding, fertilizing, tree planting, seed collecting, topsoil salvaging and replacing, and landform creation and contouring. 

A government reclamation certificate is issued when the work meets landowner approval and regulated requirements.

Open-pit mining

For oil sands mines, once an area is no longer needed for mining activities, the operator contours it for drainage, replaces topsoil, and plants vegetation, trees and shrubs. Soil and vegetation are assessed on an ongoing basis. Remediation of tailings ponds (pits that contain a mixture of water, clay, sand and residual bitumen) is also an important part of the oil sands reclamation process. 

In March 2008, Syncrude's Gateway Hill was certified by the Government of Alberta as fully reclaimed.

Canada's Energy

Industry in Action

COSIA’s Land Environmental Priority Area (EPA) is focused on reducing the footprint and impact of oil sands mining and in situ (in place) operations on the land and wildlife of northern Alberta. Through collaborations with universities, government and research institutes, industry, Aboriginal communities and the wider public, the Land EPA is bringing together world-class expertise to address complex issues related to integrated land management within Alberta’s boreal forests.

Find out more about COSIA’s Land EPA
Topsoil Reconstruction
Subsoil takes hundreds of years to turn into topsoil through natural processes such as biodegradation. A field scale study is underway at two Imperial Oil lease sites, using humalite, a low grade oxidized (weathered) coal, which doesn’t decompose and mimics the portion of natural soil that encourages microbial life and nutrient retention. The results of adding humalite to nutrient-lean subsoil are promising. These field tests are the latest phase of research, based on ten years of research undertaken to demonstrate that it is possible to build subsoil into topsoil, with as good as or better properties for growing crops than natural topsoil.

Find out more about Topsoil Reconstruction