What is biodiversity and why does it matter?

biodiversity oil sands innovation

You often hear organizations say they are committed to supporting biodiversity. But what does that really mean? And how does it apply to the oil sands?

Simply put, biodiversity is the variety and number of living things that make up a healthy ecosystem. These living organisms include trees, shrubs, mosses, lichens and other plant life; animal life, from toads and turtles to bees and bats; and aquatic populations of zooplankton and other micro-organisms. 

An ecosystem is defined as a biological community made up of living organisms that interact with each other and with their physical environment. Biodiversity is an important measure of a well-functioning, healthy ecosystem because when there is a great deal of biological interaction between healthy populations of different species – with each other and with their environment – ecosystems are stronger and more resilient.

Ecosystems with less diversity of species and lower populations can be less resilient to stressors such as fire, or other natural or human caused disturbances.

That’s why COSIA members and other oil sands operators are keenly focused on biodiversity. Wherever they operate, their commitment is to keep people safe, protect wildlife and return the sites that are disturbed by operations back to habitats that will support the area’s native species. There are many things they can to do achieve greater biodiversity, such as contouring the soil to encourage vegetation growth, or adding features, such as nesting boxes and snags (standing dead trees), to encourage wildlife.

In fact, biodiversity is so important that it is addressed in the environmental impact assessments (EIA) that all oil sands operators are required to file and obtain approval for before facilities are constructed. The discussions around biodiversity are guided by applicable regulations and include input from different stakeholders, such as local communities and indigenous groups.

Land reclamation planning begins long before a well is drilled or any infrastructure is constructed and is implemented progressively over the life of the oil sands facility. Reclamation activities increase when the facility is no longer producing. 

COSIA members work together on a wide range of projects aimed at reducing the environmental footprint of operations, accelerating reclamation and enhancing the biodiversity of reclaimed sites. A great deal of science and research is involved in these efforts and members share their learnings so that each company can apply it to their own sites. Collaboration is important because members can share resources and expertise to do more research than would be possible alone and move it along at a faster rate.

Partnerships with academic institutions is another way to fast-track biodiversity science. The Alberta Biodiversity Conservation Chairs program at the University of Alberta, for example, supported on-the-ground research in the boreal forest of northern Alberta, uncovering new knowledge to support and inform land management best practices.

These findings are publicly available on COSIA’s website and shared through networks such as the Canadian Conservation and Land Management (CCLM) Knowledge Network giving reclamation experts around the world access to the latest research and innovation. 

Find out more about the work being done on land reclamation and biodiversity

Interested in stories about how COSIA members are successfully reclaiming land?
•    Amphibious vehicles in land restoration 
•    First four years of a young boreal forest 
•    The Oil Sands Vegetation Cooperative: a living example of successful collaboration 

Innovators, are you looking to make a difference?
Check out the Land Innovation Opportunity - Seeing the forest through the trees: Refining strategies for reducing exploration footprints. 

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