ConocoPhillips Canada is working with the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology’s (NAIT) Boreal Research Institute (a COSIA Associate Member) on a high-impact applied research project that could accelerate the time it takes for former development sites to return to boreal forest. The project will test and develop new reclamation methods, products and materials. They will be conducting an interim reclamation trial on a large soil stockpile at ConocoPhillips’ Surmont in situ facility. Efforts will include establishing woody species in order to accelerate sites back to boreal forest. The trial aims to test new reclamation technologies while, at the same time, more effectively mitigate some of the environmental impacts of in situ operations.
We have selected a soil stockpile because it’s a great learning site for upland reclamation,” says Robert Albricht, Land Stewardship Coordinator for ConocoPhillips. “It faces every direction (north, south, east and west) with variable types of terrain, soil types, moisture regimes, as well as smooth and rough topography. The multi-faceted location means we can test reclamation techniques under a wide range of conditions.”
Interim reclamation allows oil sands developers to establish forest vegetation on disturbed areas many years in advance of the final reclamation, which occurs at the end of the project’s life and is a regulatory requirement.
It can be done in areas where hydro seeding is currently being used for temporary reclamation, such as soil stockpiles, along roads, around well pads, or in areas that are no longer required for safe operations of the facility.
It provides both short and long-term environmental benefits:
- Reduce commercial footprint
- Reduce risk of invasive species establishment
- Increase plant biodiversity
- Stabilize soils
- Accumulation of organic matter
- Coarse woody material for final reclamation
- Build a bank of suitable seed and root propagules for final reclamation
- Improve the quality of reclamation soils
- Increase plant and animal biodiversity
In the fall of 2016, earthworks were completed on two borrow pits, providing additional sites to provide replication of the experimental trials established on the original stockpile, testing alternative approaches to planting native species (cluster planting) as well as a seed germination inhibiting herbicide (vegetation management) trial. In the summer of 2017, experimental plots were established, which included background planting between the plots, Baseline measurements were also completed in the summer of 2017.
By the fall of 2017, the NAIT crews will complete the second-year vegetation measurements on all of the experiments and download the biophysical data from the network of sensors established at site.
The project is led by Dr. Amanda Schoonmaker, NAIT’s Natural Science Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Industrial Research Chair for Colleges (IRCC) in Boreal Reclamation and Reforestation. The project design for the stockpile will test a number of different methods, some new and some commonly used in other industries such as forestry and mining.
“We are often borrowing practices and techniques from other industries and testing and refining them to determine what forms of reclamation work best on our sites,” says Amanda.
Establishing microsites, a practice commonly used by the forestry industry, will be adopted at the site. Backhoes will roughen up the surface topography through mounding while incorporating coarse woody material on the stockpile. This reduces erosion, improves snow capture and moisture retention and creates microsites for plants, insects and other small organisms.
The forest industry has planted tree plugs — small trees grown in nurseries — in commercial reforestation efforts for decades. Traditionally, these were commercial tree species containing one plant per plug. NAIT is developing “hitchhiker” plugs that, in addition to the tree, include an herbaceous species, like a fireweed. The hitchhiker plant provides shelter for the slower-growing tree and may prevent invasive weedy species, such as scentless chamomile, from taking hold.
Green alder and fireweed tree plugs
Willow and fireweed tree plugs
The team will benefit from the oil sands mining sector’s experience with developing seed banks through COSIA to source seed for this project through the recently established South Athabasca Oil Sands Vegetative Co-op. Building an inventory of seeds means operators can ensure that areas are reclaimed with a range of different species that are as diverse as the boreal forest around them.
Walking floor trailer
Walking floor trailers are traditionally used in the forest industry for transporting sawdust and wood chips. For this project, the required coarse woody material was broken into suitable lengths and loaded into trailers off-site and delivered to the stockpile. This enabled more wood to be transported for each trip than when using dump trucks or logging trucks.
The project is designed to inform optimal plant densities and achieve the desired environmental outcomes at the lowest cost.
There will be one type of plant conspicuously absent from the project, at least while the facility is operational: berries. For the safety of workers in the area, ConocoPhillips Canada will not plant any species that could potentially attract bears.
Apart from informing best-practice reclamation techniques, the research project will deliver immediate short-term environmental benefits including:
- Reforesting a disturbed area;
- Reducing erosion;
- Improving the quality and quantity of future reclamation material; and
- Accelerating the site’s ecological trajectory back to forest.
ConocoPhillips Canada will be able monitor the different reclamation methods being tested on the site for decades to come, ensuring that when facilities like Surmont reach the end of their operational life, they can be reclaimed quickly and effectively.
ConocoPhillips Canada is working closely with NAIT’s Boreal Research Initiative, the Canadian Forest Service and Alberta Pacific Forest Industries Inc., and will also share the results of the work with the other members of the Land EPA.
“The adoption and further development of methods from both the mining and forestry industries makes this a great example of the collaboration and innovation that can occur from building on the best practices of others,” says Jenna Dunlop, Director, COSIA Land EPA.