First Four Years of a Young Boreal Forest

Surmont forest: reclamation project in the oil sands

ConocoPhillips Canada’s 10-hectare reclamation site at the Surmont Joint Venture with Total E&P Canada usually makes a big impression on visitors. It’s one thing to read about reclaiming areas disturbed by oil sands operations, it’s another to stand on one that’s visibly thriving with trees, shrubs and wildlife after just four growing seasons.

“When people see our stockpile reclamation site, it’s quite an eye-opener for them,” says Robert Albricht, Senior Coordinator Environmental Projects at ConocoPhillips. “That’s why it’s a great learning tool. Construction managers and reclamation specialists can see exactly what best practice looks like under a variety of conditions instead of reading about it in a manual.”

Stockpiles are made up of salvaged surface soil that is removed for the active phase of oil sands operations and conserved for use at the end of project life for reclamation. The stockpile at Surmont is an excellent location to trial reclamation technologies and methods under different conditions because it faces every direction, has both rough and smooth terrain and contains a variety of soil types. The reclamation project aims to find faster and more cost-effective ways to create a boreal forest ecosystem and reduce the environmental footprint of active operations.

“It’s a unique project where we are challenging the paradigm of what reclamation has historically looked like,” Albricht explains. “The goal is to achieve the optimal density of vegetation with the right species in the shortest possible time—and exceed reclamation standards.” Oil sands companies are required by law to remove all evidence of industrial activity once operations are over and return the site to nature. In fact, reclamation planning begins long before the facility is built and at Surmont, reclamation has been ongoing while operations are underway.

ConocoPhillips is working with Dr. Amanda Schoonmaker of the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT)’s Center for Boreal Research on this project, in collaboration with the Canadian Forest Service. Forestry and mining industries also reclaim land and the lessons learned through this trial can inform those sectors. “We’re learning from each other and influencing each other,” Albricht says.

One of the first things visitors notice when they arrive at the stockpile is that the surface is rough and contoured with wood and loose organic debris. “We want the site to be messy, because the boreal forest is messy,” Schoonmaker explains. “We need to recreate those conditions for the right vegetation to grow.”

Visitors are also surprised to learn that no herbicides are used to control weeds on the site. That’s because herbicides can kill native plants too. Instead, the research team is testing different site preparation and plant density combinations to accelerate establishment of natural vegetation to overwhelm the weeds. So far, it seems to be a valid approach.

Albricht says he notices moose and deer tracks every time he goes to the stockpile and, this year, the team began documenting how insects use the area. “We already have an area that is lush and green and doing well,” Albricht says. “But we’re also gathering quantitative data that will back up our best practice with science.”

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