Energy companies drill oil sands exploration (“OSE”) wells to delineate and prove oil sands deposits for licensing to develop the resource. Construction of these well sites occurs primarily in the winter, when the wet/marshy soil in northeast Alberta is frozen and sites are easier to access. Wells are usually drilled, logged, abandoned and reclaimed within the same season, but reclamation is sometimes carried over into the following winter. Although each OSE disturbance is relatively small, the sites are numerous and widespread, thereby contributing to forest fragmentation.
Historic reclamation practices involved seeding disturbances with grass and allowing trees and shrubs to grow back on their own. Often these sites became ecologically stagnant with grasses impeding the establishment of shrubs and trees.
A number of studies out of the University of Alberta have focused on understanding the factors affecting site recovery and recommended practices for construction and reclamation. In 2009, Faster Forests partners began implementing recommendations from these studies and launched an accelerated boreal forest reclamation program called “Faster Forests™”.
The Faster Forests program has led to improved construction and reclamation practices and wider adoption of planting a mix of suitable trees and shrubs soon after disturbance, to accelerate site recovery.
The first seedlings for Faster Forests hit the ground in the summer of 2009. Drawing on recommendations from the University of Alberta’s long-term study on reclamation, which indicated that sites required trees and shrubs that match the surrounding ecological conditions, ConocoPhillips planted a number of tree species including aspen, spruce, pine and balsam poplar.
“ConocoPhillips has been a leader in the development and broader adoption of the Faster Forests initiative since its inception in 2009,” explains Robert Albricht, ConocoPhillips’ Land Stewardship coordinator and project manager for Faster Forests. “This initiative is exceptional in that it goes beyond regulatory compliance to accelerate recovery of disturbed sites towards self-sustaining boreal ecosystems.”
The Faster Forests program has expanded in scale and diversity, growing from five companies and one tree species planted on OSE sites in 2009, to include seven participating companies, several tree and shrub species and non-OSE sites today.
Significant progress has been made in testing and documenting new approaches to the reclamation of OSE sites within Alberta. The Faster Forests Visual Guide to Improved Construction and Reclamation outlines practices that can protect the natural capacity of a site to regenerate back to a forest, reducing reclamation costs and making outcomes more predictable.
Minimize disturbance to the soil surface when constructing the site.
Preserve seeds and roots in upland locations and hummocks and hollows on peatlands.
Use approaches that keep the soil loose and variable and distribute the correct amount of woody materials.
“We’ve been doing the native species bit for quite a while, so that’s not new. But the program has expanded and grown,” explained Robert. “The seed material is being collected locally and grown in nurseries to supply the required seedlings.”
In previous years, seeds and seedlings used in Faster Forests’ tree planting were obtained from local forestry operators from areas with similar land traits to the leases. While the seedlings planted matched the seed zones, as required by Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, there were no guarantees of quantities or varieties.
"We planted as intelligently as possible, but we knew if we could control the species and numbers we could do much more."
Before Faster Forests, historic reclamation practices, rooted in agriculture, often resulted in grassy sites with limited tree and shrub regeneration. The Faster Forests program is designed primarily to revegetate exploratory well sites to improve biodiversity and accelerate progression towards a forested site. The seedlings are grouped together according to the ecological conditions of the site slated for reclamation.
"Each site has a prescription selected from three upland and two low land species mixes that lets us match the best mix of species to each site," said Robert. “It’s a pretty remarkable development in our planting program when compared to past practices.”
Shrubs allow trees to grow healthier, faster and with less competition from fast-growing grasses for limited nutrients and water. Berry-bearing shrubs such as blueberry and saskatoons are important to Indigenous communities and also supply food for wildlife. The planting of green alder helps to repair and fix nitrogen in the soils and at the same time creates browse that is less desirable for moose and deer. Through the careful selection of native plants and shrubs, the Faster Forests program is helping to ensure that OSE sites return to self-sustaining boreal ecosystems as quickly as possible.
To date, the Faster Forests program has resulted in over five million trees and shrubs being planted on approximately 2,250 hectares of land primarily in the south Athabasca oil sands area south of Fort McMurray, Alberta.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that planted sites have better establishment of woody stems and are more similar to surrounding vegetation than unplanted sites. A study to quantify the difference between planted and unplanted sites is expected to be published in 2020.
This chart shows the number of trees planted and sites reclaimed through the Faster Forests program over the past 10 years (2009-2018).
2018 Faster Forest Stats
- Approximately 840 OSE site equivalents
- 298,075 plants (~77 percent conifer, 16 percent deciduous, 8 percent shrub)
- 476.5 hectares planted
“Environmental Stewardship is very important to ConocoPhillips,” says Robert. “Through projects like Faster Forests, we are constantly working to identify environmental risks and opportunities to improve our environmental performance.”
The Faster Forests vision is to be able to tell the difference between a Faster Forests site and a standard site five years after treatment. The Faster Forests site will not only have taller trees and shrubs, but will more closely resemble the surrounding forest. There will be more diversity and therefore more value of the site in the context of landscape level goals regarding habitat or similar ecological values.
This project started in 2009 as a collaboration between ConocoPhillips Canada, Nexen, Statoil, Suncor, Shell and Total. Current members (2019) include Cenovus, CNOOC International North America, ConocoPhillips Canada, Husky Energy, MEG Energy and Suncor.