Surmont Boreal Reclamation Project

Focus

Establishing long term in situ reclamation research

Potential

Reducing the footprint of active in situ operations

Introduction

ConocoPhillips Canada is working with the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology’s (NAIT) Boreal Research Initiative (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 primarily test new reclamation technologies while, at the same time, more effectively mitigate some of the environmental impacts of in situ operations.

Technology and Innovation

“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.”

The first on-site activities were completed in early October 2015, with site preparation of the 10-hectare soil stockpile. The stockpile was roughened up and coarse woody material was placed to aid in reducing erosion potential and increase the variety of microsites. The instrumentation and planting of experimental plots will begin in the spring of 2016.  

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.

Learn more about reclamation methods

Microsites

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.

Tree Plugs

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

Green alder and fireweed tree plugs

Willow and fireweed tree plugs

Willow and fireweed tree plugs

Seed banks

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.

Learn more about reclamation methods

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.

Environmental Benefits

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.

Collaboration

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.