Oil sands reclaim land through Faster Forests

Now in its tenth year, Faster Forests has resulted in the planting of more than five million trees and innovative approaches to returning lands to nature more effectively.

Among the successes that show how committed oil sands producers are to sustainability and environmental performance, Faster Forests is a highlight. Now entering its eleventh year, it’s a key collaborative program that has resulted in the planting of more than five million trees and shrubs in the oil sands region of northern Alberta. More importantly, through collaboration and research, oil sands producers are returning disturbed lands back to nature faster and more effectively.

Robert Albricht, Senior Coordinator Environmental Projects at ConocoPhillips Canada, works on returning lands to a self-sustaining boreal forest. Photo courtesy ConocoPhillips Canada.

Robert Albricht, Senior Coordinator Environmental Projects at ConocoPhillips Canada, states “The vision for the program is that Faster Forests sites will not only have taller trees and shrubs, but will be further along the trajectory to a self-sustaining boreal forest. There will be more diversity and therefore more value of the site in the context of landscape level goals regarding habitat and ecological values.”

“Reclaiming the land is important not only to us, but to the stakeholders that live in and around our project,” says Albricht in a video (see below).

Returning the land to nature

Natural resource development—whether logging, mining or oil and natural gas extraction—invariably causes some land disturbance. In Canada, developers are required by law to return disturbed lands to a self-sustaining state. This can include the removal of any contaminants, putting temporarily stockpiled soils back and replanting native vegetation. Biologists monitor the land to ensure it meets regulatory requirements and integrates successfully with the surrounding natural habitat.

This can be a challenge in the boreal forests of northern Alberta where forests can take decades to grow through the many stages to maturity. It can take even longer if the soil placement and revegetation steps are not done thoughtfully.

The Faster Forests project began through the need to reclaim oil sands exploration (OSE) wells that were needed to characterize the oil sands deposits underground. Although each OSE disturbance is relatively small, the sites are numerous and widespread, and when combined with seismic line disturbances and access trails, they result in forest fragmentation which affects wildlife habitat usage.

Industry is motivated to reclaim quickly and effectively. The faster successful reclamation happens, the faster they receive their ‘rec cert’ or reclamation certificate and industry can move on to other reclamation projects.

The Faster Forests origin story

The idea for Faster Forests sprang from a planting consortium that started in 2005. Back then, Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries supplied approximately 80,000 surplus trees to oil sands companies ConocoPhillips, JACOS and Nexen (now CNOOC). As Jeremy Reid, Environmental Coordinator for Canadian Natural Resources Limited recalls, “This planting initiative soon shifted to assessing planting success: changing the objective from simply planting large numbers of trees to evaluating the success of the planting, making sure the right trees are planted to fit the site conditions.”

As a result, 36 research sites were established on ConocoPhillips Canada and Nexen leases. Biologists and ecologists were brought in to test out a variety of OSE lease construction and revegetation practices.

Nature returns to Faster Forest reclamation site. Photo courtesy ConocoPhillips Canada.

Through this process, researchers discovered the potential for improvement over the operational practices of the day. For example, it was typical to plant grasses on the reclamation site. But the research showed that this could result in the site turning into a grassy meadow. Once a meadow is established, it becomes very difficult for shrubs and trees to thrive, delaying a return to the natural forest sometimes by decades.

Over time, the project has increased the types of species planted to include white spruce, aspen, black spruce, and shrubs. It also now includes a focus on plants of interest to local Indigenous communities. All of this ensures the reclamation outcomes match the surrounding forest.

A decade of collaboration

Faster Forests was officially launched as a focused project in 2009 by ConocoPhillips. At that time, enough research had been done to start systematically applying the results broadly across reclamation sites and assessing the outcomes. The true collaborative nature of the project is clear in its focus on sharing techniques that work on a real reclamation site, not just in a controlled test plot.

This work continues today as one of the research projects under Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA)—a one-of-a-kind innovation hub where oil sands producers work together to research, develop and share environmental technologies. The current project partners for Faster Forests include ConocoPhillips, Canadian Natural, Cenovus, CNOOC International North America, Husky Energy, MEG Energy and Suncor. In addition, project learnings have been shared with other producers, as well as contractors and service companies involved in land reclamation to ensure best possible practices are being applied throughout the industry.

“Faster Forests exemplifies the collaborative spirit of COSIA,” says Jack O’Neil, Director of the Land Environmental Priority Area at COSIA. “The project, led by ConocoPhillips, has expanded to include numerous industry members, and the experimental and operational use of numerous species of trees and shrubs.”

O’Neil adds, “Constantly exceeding minimum reclamation requirements, Faster Forests has demonstrated that environmental performance improvement has been accelerated through collaborative action. Because of Faster Forests, thousands of reclaimed oil sands exploration well sites across northeastern Alberta are re-established or on growth trajectories to support mature boreal ecosystems.”

At its core, the Faster Forests project concentrates on restoring ecological structure and ecosystem functions at OSE sites in a shorter period than if left alone. Beyond the goal of reclamation, it is the collaborative nature of the reclamation specialists in oil and gas that makes the project effective.

Jon Hornung, Senior Advisor of Technology Innovation at Armada Environmental Inc., an Alberta-based environmental consulting company, points out “the success to date of Faster Forests is only possible because of the very high level of trust among operators, academics and the regulator. Sharing results – both successes and failures – has improved learnings and created and environment of open collaboration and respect.” The participants in the project often disagree on what approaches to take so there are lively discussions about options and strategies to do better.

Building on success

To be clear, Faster Forests isn’t actually about making trees grow faster. Rather, it’s identifying issues and practices that can slow down or prevent forest regeneration and finding ways to optimize and enhance growth.

For example, Faster Forest research showed that some standard operator practices, like smoothing the soil surface, made it harder for seeds and seedlings to establish themselves. It’s better to leave the soil rough and loose. Another common construction practice was to haul away or burn coarse woody material left over from the disturbance. The research showed, however, that it’s better to leave this material on the ground: the material mitigates soil erosion, improves moisture retention and creates variability in site conditions, all of which encourage a diversity of plants to re-establish on the site. And as a bonus, the branches of the woody material have cones and seeds on them that accelerate revegetation.

Success also needs to be assessed objectively as it enables researchers to continue improving methods for successful reclamation. Using remote sensing technology, the Faster Forests group has been able to compare the tree cover on OSE sites that have been treated with Faster Forests reclamation best practices, to sites that have not received this treatment. Preliminary results confirm that Faster Forests’ sites get back to a forest, faster.

And it’s not enough to confirm that the reclamation is successful. It is also important that stakeholders, such as local indigenous communities, are satisfied that the reclaimed sites have the right mix of plants and are progressing towards self-sustaining boreal forests.

Finally, true success occurs when important learnings are shared—so operators across the industry can use the best possible, scientifically verified techniques for land reclamation.

Terry Forkheim, Senior Environmental and Regulatory Advisor at Equinor Canada Ltd. (formerly Statoil) states “many of these learnings are documented in the Faster Forests Visual Guide to Improved Construction and Reclamation, providing guidance to help operators improve their outcomes by outlining practices that can speed regeneration back to a forest, reduce reclamation costs and make outcomes more predictable”. This guide outlines best practices, such as preserving seeds and roots in upland locations and hummocks and hollows on peatlands, and it also explains the rationale for them.

This guidance document has been so well received that Faster Forests is currently working on a planting guide for tree planters.

The collaboration and trust developed in the Faster Forests program has enabled reclamation practitioners confidence to apply the suite of practices to reclamation efforts for other disturbance types such as seismic lines, as well as for peatlands and borrow pits.

Much has been accomplished over the past 10 years and the people involved in the Faster Forests program look forward to the continued evolution and expansion of the toolkit to support accelerated reclamation of boreal forests in Alberta and beyond.

In this article, Context speaks with:
  • RA
    Robert Albricht Senior Coordinator, Environmental Operations, ConocoPhillips Canada
  • JR
    Jeremy Reid Environmental Coordinator for Canadian Natural Resources Limited
  • JO
    Jack ONeill Director of the Land Environmental Priority Area, COSIA
  • JH
    Jon Hornung Senior Advisor of Technology Innovation at Armada Environmental Inc.
  • TF
    Terry Forkheim Senior Environmental and Regulatory Advisor at Equinor Canada Ltd.