Oil Sands Land Reclamation – What Does it Take?
Canada’s Oil Sands — a bitumen reserve equivalent to 1.6 trillion barrels of oil.
This massive reserve is located within the Peace River, Cold Lake, and Athabasca River regions of northern Alberta and are a major resource within Canada’s energy sector. The Alberta Oil Sands accounts for 13% of global oil reserves.
All combined, the energy sector contributes approximately 10% to the Canadian GDP, however there is also a cost associated with the production and delivery of oil products, natural gas and electricity. Much of Canada’s natural resource development occurs in the boreal forest, which requires land disturbances and ecological modifications.
Although development has occurred on only a small fraction of the total Canadian boreal land area (0.02%), localized oil sands activities have imposed modifications to the boreal forest, therefore some land reclamation experts are concerned about the success of the boreal forest restoration.
Today reclamation experts are challenged with determining how best to reclaim these disturbed ecosystems, which aim to promote both sustainable economic development and suitable ecological outcomes. Managing forest restoration requires a thorough understanding of how boreal ecosystems are structured and function. Because the forest is made up of the swamps, bogs, peatland fens and wetlands, the biodiversity of the boreal area is complex.
Federal, provincial, industrial, and other stakeholders continue to collaborate to understand how best to reclaim post disturbance landscapes to a reasonable level following development. Currently, legislative requirements for forest land reclamation plans are mandatory as a precursor to any large-scale development. Developers must agree to design and implement reclamation practices to return affected lands to a reasonable degree of ecological fidelity.
Once development has occurred, industry stakeholders are required by law to restore site stability and ecosystem functions. As such, every effort is made to return the landscape to a healthy ecosystem upon completion of a project — whether that is boreal forest, native prairie or farmed land.
Reclamation goals include restoring biodiversity, habitat, adaptability to climate change, cultural and traditional land use, or agricultural production through:
Contouring and erosion control –
Disturbed surface areas are re-contoured to blend with the original landform. Adequate erosion control will provide for site stability and generally is achieved by successful revegetation.
The establishment of a self-sustaining native plant community is a benchmark of reclamation success, including the control of noxious weeds.
Reclamation certification –
Following reclamation, the landscape is evaluated to ensure there are no erosion or drainage issues, topsoil quality and quantity is confirmed, and the health of vegetation (e.g., plant density, height, productivity, diversity, etc.) is adequate.
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To date, major bitumen development companies have spent an enormous amount of time and money returning disturbed lands to a state that is “equal or better than pre-disturbance conditions”. Reclamation efforts include trucking in stored peat along with building aquifers that support swamps, bogs, peatland fens and wetlands, which all contribute to a significant amount of the biodiversity for restoration.
In one case a major stakeholder added 65,000 truckloads of soil to create a layer of soil 50 centimetres deep. The area was then planted with more than 600,000 trees and shrubs. Another major oil company working in the Oil Sands planted 100,000 trees and shrubs in one area. In total, the company has planted eight million trees on 3,642 hectares of land in the boreal forest.
The benchmark for successful reclamation typically is the establishment of a native plant community that is self-sustaining and meets standards for density and forage production, and the re-contouring of all disturbed surface areas to match or blend with the original landform.
“One of the largest risks that any oil and gas company has is not being able to access and therefore develop the land. If companies gain the reputation that they are not reclaiming the land properly, that they are not respecting the landowners, or that they are not following regulations, I believe that continued growth will eventually be hindered.” Janine Wildschut Ph.D., P.Bio., – AiM Land Manager Reclamation + Remediation
Janine leads the team of experts at AiM, where they are involved in the identification of contaminated areas, development of reclamation plans, and inspecting, monitoring, and evaluating reclamation projects. Janine’s group also provides direction to clients to ensure compliance with applicable federal and provincial environmental regulations.
Reclamation experts continue to develop innovative, practical, environmentally responsible, and cost-effective ways to ensure that successful reclamation of forest ecosystems occur, while supporting resource development activities. Janine and other land reclamation experts understand if forest regeneration is to occur, succession trajectories, biodiversity and nutrient cycling, are all necessary to maintain our commitment to our stewardship of the boreal forest.
If we take, we must give back.
To discuss creating a Reclamation Plan as part of your project, reach out to Janine Wildschut – AiM’s Manager of Remediation and Reclamation.