The Oil Sands Leadership Initiative’s Land Stewardship Working Group (LSWG) is focusing on sharing practices related to land reclamation in the boreal forest such as minimizing soil disturbance, using coarse woody debris and planting trees.
“Sharing best practices is critical to improving our overall performance in reclaiming land affected by oil sands operations,” says Jeremy Reid, LSWG Project Manager from Nexen, one of the six companies participating in OSLI (the others are: ConocoPhillips Canada, Shell Canada, Statoil, Suncor and Total E&P Canada). “OSLI member companies can take their collective learnings and apply them to their individual companies. All shared best practices are then spread across six operations, not just one.”
Minimizing soil disturbance centers on the conservation of biological and mineral material from topsoil and subsoil, which contain nutrients that feed plants and organisms. When clearing soil from a construction site for core hole drilling, OSLI companies minimize soil disturbance by removing the soil layer by layer, and storing the layers separately so they are not mixed together. This ensures that nutrients in the topsoil and the subsoil are saved for future use.
Once a core hole has been drilled, the topsoil and subsoil are replaced and organic matter and nutrients are reestablished in the ecosystem.
This best practice also involves minimizing the amount of land required for clearing and looking at alternative sites for construction.
Planning teams use detailed topography maps to layout exploration sites in an orientation that requires the least surface disturbance. Over time the size of exploration sites have been reduced.
Prior to core hole drilling, Reid says a project team assesses a construction site to determine which trees need to be cleared. The team evaluates the number of trees that are non-merchantable, meaning their timber is not high enough quality to be sold. However, these trees can be used on site to aid in reclamation instead of being burned or mulched, which can inhibit vegetation growth, or have a negative impact on soil composition.
OLSI is using a new approach by removing the trees and holding them on site. Once construction has been completed, the timber is then rolled back onto the site and this coarse woody material helps to create micro-sites for re-vegetation. The coarse woody debris provides shelter from harsh weather for smaller plants, and is a secure source of moisture that enables seedlings to establish roots.
Adding woody debris to sites also replicates natural processes that maintain the carbon cycle, where carbon is transferred between organisms and the environment to create carbon dioxide and oxygen. Re-introducing wood, and the re-vegetation that occurs, increases the biodiversity of the site, allowing various insects and fungus to survive, while also creating habitat for small wildlife species. All of this contributes to site biodiversity and faster re-vegetation.
Tree planting is another major focus for the LSWG, and is an example of continued efforts to implement best practices. The team evaluates sites to determine which ones are not regenerating as well or as quickly as they could. Tree planting efforts are then focused on these areas in order to increase the speed of reclamation, which is the aim of OSLI’s Faster Forests project, where OSLI companies collectively planted approximately one million trees and shrubs between 2009 and 2011.
As development of the oil sands region increases, the number of exploration sites has also increased. With this comes the challenge of increased land disturbance in the area – which the LSWG is working to address.
Members of the LSWG, along with observers from the Government of Alberta, meet in the field at least twice a year to share information and discuss challenges relating to construction, oil and re-vegetation. Although the group initially held workshops to identify issues, on-site visits have proven to be more useful, since everyone can see the challenges and gauge the effectiveness of reclamation work. The group is also looking at developing a systematic monitoring program in 2012 that will provide feedback about what is working and how well, ensuring the methods continuously improve reclamation work.
“Communication is the key to sharing best practices to improve our environmental performance around reclamation,” says Reid. “The collaboration within OSLI is paying dividends in this respect. We can see the results every spring.”