Exploration activities required to locate subsurface energy resources result in the clearing of vegetation on exploratory well sites prior to development. Returning land to a functioning boreal ecosystem can take decades. Historic reclamation practices used to involve 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. The Faster Forests program has led to wider adoption of planting sites soon after disturbance, improved reclamation practices and the planting of trees and shrubs to accelerate site recovery.
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. ConocoPhillips Canada, with Nexen Inc., Statoil Canada, Suncor Energy and Total E&P, implemented recommendations from these studies to create Faster Forests, an aggressive reclamation pilot program.
The Faster Forests program has led to wider adoption of planting sites soon after disturbance, improved reclamation practices and the planting of trees and shrubs 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 forest, 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. “This initiative is exceptional in that it goes beyond regulatory compliance to accelerate recovery of disturbed sites towards self-sustaining boreal ecosystems.”
Since 2009, the program has expanded in both scale and in diversity.
“We’ve been doing the native species bit for quite a while, so that’s not new. But, the program has been expanded and grown recently,” explained Robert. “The seed material has been collected locally and is being 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 that exhibit similar land traits to our 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."
The Faster Forests program is designed primarily to revegetate exploratory well sites to improve biodiversity and accelerate progression towards a forested site again. The seedlings are grouped together according to the species that had been grown on the site slated for reclamation. In this way, it is working to ensure areas are returned as close to their natural state as possible.
"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 Albricht. “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 Aboriginal communities and also supply food for wildlife. Three of ConocoPhillips’ sites were planted with high numbers of saskatoons to create future seed collection sites. 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 almost three million trees and shrubs being planted on approximately 1,000 hectares of land in Northern Alberta. In 2014 alone, the Faster Forests program participants planted more than 650,000 plants on approximately 300 hectares of land in Northern Alberta and the work isn’t stopping there. The project has committed to plant more than one million trees over the next three years.
The program aims to be able to visually discern 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 be further along the trajectory to a forest eco-site compatible with 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.
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 currently underway with results expected to be published over the next two years.
This chart show the number of trees planted and sites reclaimed through Faster Forests since 2009.
2014 Faster Forest Stats
- 659,153 plants (90% trees 10% shrubs)
- Five species of trees (Jack Pine, White Spruce, Black Spruce, White Birch, Balsam Poplar)
- Five species of shrubs (Blueberry, Bearberry, Willow, Green Alder, Bog Birch)
- approximately 610 OSE site equivalents planted
- approximately 300 hectares covered
- Six species of trees
“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.”
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 be further along the trajectory to resembling 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 is a collaboration between ConocoPhillips Canada with Husky Energy, MEG Energy, Nexen, Shell Canada, Statoil Canada and Suncor Energy.