Aerial Image of an Oil Sands Pit Lake, Surrounded by Dense Forest.

Petroleum 101: The many faces of reclamation

From oil sands pit lakes to wellsites and roads, land disturbed by oil and natural gas development is returned to a self-sustaining state.

For Shannon Carla King, art is a pathway to understanding an important process in natural gas and oil development: reclamation.

King has worked in the industry for more than 30 years. She also paints beautiful landscapes, with a twist: her work features oil sands reclamation sites.

“We need to look at how far we’ve come and focus on the positive things the industry is doing,” she says. “By using art, I can reach people who may not read a sustainability report or otherwise connect with the industry. It’s about education and awareness, sharing reclamation stories through art.”

initial exhibit from shannon carla king wapisiw lookout courtesy shannon carla king
Wapisiw Lookout, painting by Shannon Carla

Reclamation basics

Returning disturbed land to a usable state is called ‘reclamation.’ The process actually starts even before a well is drilled or surface mining begins. Detailed reclamation plans form part of a company’s regulatory application for a project. Plans are frequently developed with input from local stakeholders, especially Indigenous communities.

Reclamation starts with the end in mind – planners know what the final reclaimed landscape will be. For instance, in the oil sands region, the boreal forest is characterized by numerous lakes, bogs and wetlands that are often recreated, in addition to replanting forest cover.

Before work begins on a project, soil (sometimes including muskeg, peat and other wetland surface material) is removed and stored for later use when the site is being reclaimed. Seeds and roots from native vegetation in the area are often collected and stored for future use when revegetating a disturbed site.

Steps in reclaiming a disturbed site include:

  • Ground is contoured to create a surface landscape that includes drainage systems
  • Subsoil and topsoil / organic material is replace over the contoured surface
  • Vegetation is introduced, including seeding, planting trees and other native plants
  • For a period of years the site is monitored to ensure soil quality and fertility, revegetation establishment, and water quality.
  • When an ecosystem is established, the company can apply for a reclamation certificate, which is issued once the regulatory authority believes a self-sustaining ecosystem is in place and the site meets the original plan’s objectives.

Different locations, different processes

Given the long lifecycle of oil sands operations – 25 to 50 years for a surface mine, 10 to 15 years for in situ operations – much of the industry’s overall reclamation activity is still in its early stages. To speed the process, many operators have adopted a ‘progressive reclamation’ process – starting to reclaim a site even while production is ongoing. Progressive reclamation establishes vegetation on part of a disturbed area no longer required for ongoing operations but may not necessarily reflect the final landscape.

Reclamation practices are similar for oil sands in situ developments and for natural gas development, whether single wells or multi-well pads. The average life of a natural gas well is 20 to 30 years but much of the drill site, including access roads and pipeline rights-of-way, can be replanted while the well is still producing. Once a well is no longer productive, full site reclamation can start. The well operator is responsible to clean up and reclaim the site, both surface and subsurface, to safely abandon the well. It can take up to 15 years to effectively establish a successful ecosystem on a former wellsite. Throughout the reclamation process, soil, surface water and groundwater are tested to ensure the site is not contaminated and poses no threat to the environment, health or safety.

Ongoing research, best practices

Reclamation techniques and tools have come a long way and continue to evolve, thanks to ongoing field experience and collaboration through organizations such as Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA).

In 2009, oil sands partners launched an accelerated boreal forest reclamation program called Faster Forests.™ The program has led to improved practices and wider adoption of planting a mix of suitable trees and shrubs soon after disturbance, to accelerate site recovery. As of 2019, more than five million trees had been planted as part of the program.

Also in the oil sands, pit lakes are seen as a solution for two environmental requirements of oil sands mines: support the full reclamation of disturbed lands, and manage fluid tailings. Unmanaged fluid tailings can form a yogurt-like mixture that takes decades to form a solid surface that can be reclaimed. Also, when surface mining is complete, a pit remains. The opportunity: place tailings in the pit and cover then with water (called water capping) to physically isolate the tailings underwater, then revegetate the surrounding land and allow ecosystem processes to establish naturally over time. Water and soil quality are monitored to ensure a final lake habitat that can sustain plants and wildlife. Syncrude’s Base Mine Lake is one example of pit lake reclamation – and the lake is a great source of data as the site continues to be monitored.

Other oil sands sites that have been reclaimed and are continuing to provide valuable information about novel reclamation techniques and ecosystem regeneration are:

  • Nikanotee Fen – Suncor, Imperial and Shell partnered in 2013 to reconstruct a three-hectare wetland ecosystem that is being monitored to learn about natural regeneration.
  • Wapisiw Lookout was a tailings storage area within Suncor’s original oil sands mine from 1967 and 1997. In 2010 Suncor became the first oil sands operator to successfully reclaim a tailings pond to a solid surface. This 220-hectare site is now growing into mixed-wood forest and small wetland – and it’s the subject of one of King’s paintings.
  • Muskeg Lake at Imperial’s Kearl oil sands development was completed in 2013 to replace fish habitat disturbed by mining operations. Ongoing monitoring of soil, water, vegetation and fish has indicated a thriving and viable ecosystem. In 2019, Imperial started development of Lake Tourangeau, the second phase of fish habitat replacement.

Of course, the oil sands are not the only place where reclamation is active. At its Cold Lake heavy oil development in Alberta, Imperial is employing progressive reclamation techniques using native trees and shrubs that are traditional to Indigenous culture and medicine. And at several locations in Alberta and B.C., innovative reclamation techniques are being applied to linear disturbances such as roads and seismic lines to improve caribou habitat.

frogs galore indian river valley images for shannon carla king podcast
Frogs Galore (Indian River Valley), painting by Shannon Carla

Education and awareness

King’s paintings were featured in a Vancouver exhibit organized by the Federation of Canadian Artists in October 2020. Each of her paintings had a scannable QR code so people could use their smartphones to access online content and learn more about the reclaimed sites.

“The reclaimed lands are stunning,” she says. “Innovation, years of research, dedicated funding and consulting with Indigenous communities make these projects sustainable for future generations. It’s humbling to try to put all that into a painting.”

She concludes, “Through my paintings I want to create a conversation where people focus on the great things the industry is doing and our country’s high environmental standards. It may not change minds, but if I can get people to pause for one moment and challenge their perspective, that’s a win.”