Land Usage

Land Usage

By surface area, only 3% of the Alberta oil sands is mineable. The remaining 97% is too deep to be mined and can only extracted in-place with minimal land disturbance. Currently, the active mining footprint is about 760 square kilometres, equivalent to the size of Edmonton. Learn more about land usage and how oil sands mining operators are reclaiming the landscape.


Size of Canadian Land Mass: 10,000,000 square km (including lakes, rivers & wetlands)
Size of Boreal Forest Zone: 5,750,000 square km (includes rivers, lakes & wetlands)
Size of Boreal Forest: 3,200,000 square km (coniferous & deciduous trees only)
Size of Oil Sands Mining Area: 760 square km (about 0.01% of the boreal forest).

DID YOU KNOW? The Canadian Boreal forest is the largest intact forest on earth. In fact, 91% of the forest is still intact and over 3,000,000 square km are totally undisturbed - i.e., they do not contain any access roads, cities or industry.


Forests absorb carbon through a process called photosynthesis, where carbon and water are converted into energy by harnessing the power of sunlight.  It is estimated that 100 billion tonnes of CO2 are sequestered by photosynthesis per year.


Forests release stored carbon back into the atmosphere when they decay or burn.

DID YOU KNOW? About 28,000 square km of forest burn each year in Canada. Forest fires are an important part of the boreal forest ecosystem. Fires enable plant regeneration, recycle phosphorus and remove accumulated dead organic matter. Forest fires are more prevalent in Western Canada, where conditions are much drier than on the East Coast.


About 760 square kilometres of land has been disturbed by the oil sands, mostly through surface mining. This amounts to 0.01% of the land mass covered by Canada's boreal forest.  

Oil sands tailings ponds (or tailings storage facilities) account for 175 square kilometres of disturbed land, about 25% of the land usage.

DID YOU KNOW? The Canadian boreal forest is one of the world's largest carbon sinks. It is estimated that 186 billion tonnes of carbon are stored in Canada's boreal forest, about 150 billion tonnes contained within the wetlands. This is enough to capture almost 30 years worth of global carbon emissions from fossil fuels.


By square footage, only 3% of Canada's oil sands is mineable. The remainder (97%) is too deep to be mined and can only be recovered in-situ, which take up much less surface area and do not require large mines or tailings storage ponds.


About 10% of the disturbed land has been reclaimed. However, all reclaimed land must be certified by the Alberta Government, according to the new definition of reclamation (redefined in 2011). So far, Syncrude is the only operator to officially obtain reclamation certification for their Gateway Hill area, which began reclamation in the early 1980s.

OIL SANDS MINING FOOTPRINT - NOT AS BIG AS ADVERTISED: Although often reported to be as large as Florida, the active mining footprint of the oil sands is actually closer to the size of Edmonton. About 97% of the bitumen contained in the oil sands is extracted in-situ which requires minimal land disturbance.

By law, 100% of disturbed land will have to reclaimed back to a trafficable landscape. This is mandated by the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER). Timelines and reclamation targets are outlined in Directive 074.


The oil sands deposit naturally contains a significant amount of fine clays, ranging from 10-35% depending on location and geology.  These clays take a very long time to settle in the tailings ponds and have a tendency to form a sludge-like substance known as fine fluid tailings (FFT). FFT has very soft consistency and is not strong enough to sustain vegetation or any vehicle loads (i.e., not trafficable). Although the technology to reclaim FFT has improved greatly over the years, there are significant volumes of FFT accumulated over the years that need to be reprocessed. Once land has been reclaimed, it must be closely monitored before wildlife and vegetation can be fully restored.  The reclamation process can take up to 15 years after the mine has been depleted. Typical mine life in the oil sands can be anywhere from 10 to 30 years.


In 2009, the ERCB (Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board, now known as the Alberta Energy Regulator) introduced Directive 074: Tailings Performance Criteria & Requirements for Oil Sands Mining Schemes. Under this directive, oil sands mining operators are required to commit to the reduction of fine fluid tailings and reduce any current inventories. Operators must undertake research and development and submit annual progress reports. 

Historically, oil sands operators would store fine fluid tailings in the tailings (FFT) pond and reprocess them after the pond was decommissioned. This led to large accumulated volumes of FFT which would eventually degrade and became more difficult to reclaim. Directive 074 prohibits the long term storage of fine fluid tailings and requires the operators to reclaim FFT as they progress the mine plan. Oil sands operators are now required to capture the fine fluid tailings within 1 year of deposition and be fully reclaimed in 5 years. Since this is beyond current technology, the oil sands mining operators are required to actively undertake research into the different reclamation techniques, share this information with other operators and submit annual progress reports to the Alberta government. Enforcement of Directive 074 was suspended in April 2015 due to difficulty in meeting all its targets. However, the directive still acts as a guiding principle for land reclamation.

Tailings Directive 074 Explained

Tailings Directive 074 Explained

Water Usage

Water Usage