Future forests:
reclamation and tree planting programs

There’s a persistent public misconception that oil and natural gas development, especially oil sands mining, is destroying vast areas of boreal forest – coupled with the notion that the industry’s reclamation of disturbed land is not keeping pace with the disturbance itself.

Let’s debunk that first misconception: oil sands deposits lie under 142,000 square kilometres (km2) of land in northern Alberta. Only about 3 per cent, or 4,800 km2 could potentially be subject to surface mining because the deposits are close to the land surface. The remaining reserves are recovered by drilling (in situ) methods that require much less surface land disturbance than mining. Since commercial-scale oil sands development began, 0.04 per cent of Canada’s boreal forest has been disturbed by mining operations. (Source: Alberta Energy Regulator, Natural Resources Canada).

Also, advances in horizontal drilling and multi-well drilling pads have reduced the amount of land disturbed in both conventional drilling for oil and natural gas, and for oil sands in situ drilling. Numerous horizontal wells drilled from a single pad can access a greater area of the reservoir from a smaller area of land than the same number of vertical wells drilled from single-well pads. A 20-well drilling pad disturbs about 5 per cent of the land required for an equal number of vertical wells.

Horizontal vs. Single Well Drilling Pads
drilling pads diagram

It is true that to date only a small proportion of land disturbed for oil sands mining has been certified (the provincial regulator deems the land to be reclaimed and self-sustaining). This is because most mining areas are still active.

But that doesn’t mean oil and natural gas producers are idly waiting for some future moment when all disturbed areas can be reclaimed. Conventional oil and natural gas drilling sites are actively reclaimed when the well(s) is no longer producing. And for large developments such as oil sands mining, the reclamation process can take years to complete. For this reason, many operators adopt a process called ‘progressive reclamation’ – incrementally reclaiming a site as portions of the operation become inactive. Progressive reclamation ensures these areas are reclaimed within the context of the plan to reclaim the entire mine site at the conclusion of all mining and associated activities.

What is ‘closure’?

Activities to reclaim land disturbance, known collectively as ‘closure,’ actually begin in the planning phase long before any disturbance occurs, and continue through steps such as decommissioning (shutting down) assets and facilities, remediating and land that may be contaminated, land surface contouring to create natural landscapes that blend into the undisturbed surrounding land, replacing soils that were salvaged and stored prior to mining or other land disturbance, planting vegetation, and monitoring to track progress toward a self-sustaining landscape. ‘Closure’ pertains to well sites, facilities, linear disturbances such as access roads and seismic lines, pipelines, and surface disturbances in the oil sands including surface mining and in situ operations. Research and monitoring are important sources of innovation and data that help to advance future closure activities.

Besides restoring disturbed lands, closure may also provide social benefits such as training and employment opportunities, support for communities, landowner and Indigenous participation, and governance practices in terms of minimizing corporate risk by planning for closure and reducing liability. Many companies engage with Indigenous communities to seek input and ensure native plant species and traditional knowledge are incorporated into reclamation planning and execution.

Industry in action

Reforestation is one aspect of site closure – planting a variety of tree and shrub species native to an area, to kick-start natural processes and establish a self-sustaining ecosystem. Vegetation helps retain soil moisture, reduces erosion, and attracts birds and wildlife.

Canada’s oil and natural gas operators, especially in the oil sands region, have collectively planted literally millions of trees:

  • Canadian Natural Resources has planted almost 3.4 million trees in its oil sands operations and about 2.5 million trees across other North American exploration and production operations. Canadian Natural collaborated with Fort McKay Elders to implement traditional protocols for tree planting, including smudge ceremonies and tobacco blessings.
  • Imperial Oil has planted 1.4 million trees at its Kearl and Cold Lake operations over the past 10 years.
  • ConocoPhillips has planted more than one million trees and shrubs at its Surmont oil sands development.
  • Suncor Energy planted approximately 110,500 tree and shrub seedlings in reclamation areas in 2020 at its Base Plant, bringing the total number of seedlings planted to about 9 million. Suncor has fully reclaimed about 11 per cent of its Base Plant oil sands operation.
  • Cenovus planted 311,358 trees on 63 sites in 2020, using native tree and shrub species including white and black spruce, lodgepole and jack pine, larch, poplar, aspen, alder, birch, and willow. The environment team at the company’s Christina Lake operation organized a volunteer tree plant in June 2020, to ensure the reclamation program could continue safely amid COVID protocols, and to raise awareness about the importance of reclamation. The team planted 18,823 seedlings on a 9-acre section of a reclaimed borrow pit.

Major oil sands producers planted more than 25 million trees between 2009 and 2018.

(Source: Canadian Energy Centre)

Other research and reforestation initiatives include:

  • Partners in the Oil Sands Vegetation Co-operative harvest and bank seeds for use in reclamation and research. The co-operative is an ongoing initiative managed by Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), now part of Pathways Alliance.
  • The Linear Deactivation (LiDea) Project uses innovative techniques to restore legacy linear disturbances in the boreal forest. In the project, active restoration using forest management techniques is assessed to understand impacts to plant community dynamics (how forest species composition changes over time). Recently 100 per cent of the 237 kilometres of legacy linear features within the LiDea area have been restored.
  • Faster Forests is a program to accelerate the recovery of oil sands exploration sites to self-sustaining boreal ecosystems. Another COSIA initiative, Faster Forests is led by ConocoPhillips Canada and includes Canadian Natural, Cenovus, CNOOC International North America, Husky Energy, MEG Energy and Suncor along with researchers and regulators. Learnings and achievements from the program over the past decade are now being used as best practices across the oil sands and as an example for public land users in Alberta. This program has led to the adoption of improved reclamation practices and planting trees and shrubs to speed recovery of disturbed lands. Faster Forests partners have planted more than five million trees and shrubs, on about 2,250 hectares, which is equal to more than 4,200 football fields or 14,200 NHL hockey rinks.

SPOTLIGHT: Birchcliff Energy

Birchcliff has completed full facility decommissioning and pipeline abandonment at its Rycroft Sour Gas Plant in Alberta. The facility was a sour gas processing facility with an acid gas well and eight associated pipelines. All decommissioned processing equipment was either sold or recycled. Decommissioning of this facility met all Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act (EPEA) approval requirements and allowed for site reclamation to begin earlier than originally scheduled. Reclamation activities began in the summer of 2021 and will continue throughout 2022.

The bottom line

Canada’s oil and natural gas industry is committed to reducing its footprint, reclaiming all land affected by operations, and maintaining biodiversity. From research to field trials to progressive reclamation, Canada’s energy companies are collaborating and moving forward to restore disturbed landscapes.

That’s Canadian Energy in Action. 

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