The oil sands industry has embraced holistic thinking around Boreal Forest reclamation

COSIA-member companies’ intense efforts to develop soil and watershed assessment tools, as well as bio-indicators to support the acceleration of successful reclamation efforts in the Canadian Boreal Forest – part of a massive collaborative academic, government, industry project known as the Forest Watershed and Riparian Disturbance (FORWARD) III project - has not gone unnoticed.

“The oil sands industry has embraced holistic thinking around reclamation and have been incredibly supportive in attempting to integrate the physical, chemical and biotic elements of terrestrial and aquatic reclamation,” said Preston McEachern, adjunct professor at the University of Alberta’s Civil & Environmental Department and a Principal Investigator for Forward III. 

In fact, reclamation efforts go back more than four decades. The Alberta Oil Sands Environmental Research Program (AOSERP) – managed by Alberta Environment - ran from 1975 to 1985, and was followed by the Reclamation Research Technical Advisory Committee (RRTAC) which oversaw the government’s research program from 1978 to 1994, producing an enormous amount of research that has informed reclamation practices.  

Forwards I and II were focused on Ontario and Alberta forestry. Long-term monitoring of nine (of 20) watersheds as part of those studies have also provided – since 1998 - a long-term reference for reclamation of oil sand watersheds.

FORWARD III looks to understand how natural and anthropogenic (manmade or human influenced) disturbances – such as oil sands mining, fires, and forestry – influence the dynamics of forest watersheds and the soils, vegetation and waterbodies within them.

Water testing at Christina Lake

Cenovus testing water near its Christina Lake operations, located in northern Alberta, east of the town of Conklin.

“Attempting to manage reclamation encompassing soils, hydrology, vegetation, wetlands, lakes and streams as well as aquatic plant and animal life is extremely challenging, as each is interrelated while clear independent – dependent relationships are rare,” McEachern says.  

“Being able to describe these interrelated components and the possible outcomes for vegetation, microbes and animals is critical to success, and the COSIA companies recognize this.”

“It’s all with the intent of building and rebuilding successful landforms, ensuring that aquatic and terrestrial species can thrive,” said James Agate, manager, Reclamation for Canadian Natural and the COSIA project lead.

“Our end goal is to have confidence that we will have put the right mix of soils on the site, and that the vegetation we plant will be sustainable and robust,” he said.

“Ultimately, we want to ensure that our soil placement treatment will result in healthy groundwater flow – that any water released from the site is healthy and good for the environment, and it is also imperative that eventually water release is built into the natural hydrologic cycle.”    

The project encompassed five components of forestry management, including:

  • Benchmarks for reclaimed and engineered soils: This work is exploring how long it may take the soil’s physical properties within engineered-covered soils to revert to more natural forest watershed conditions.
  • Acceptable vegetation complexes: Identifying revegetation strategies that provide acceptable plant species diversity, while controlling the amount of water and constituents or parameters released from soils.
  • Risk of toxicity: Using emerging methods that look at both toxicity and behavioural impacts. This component is providing new insights on the sensitivity of organisms to the metals and organics typical of oil sands process water (OSPW). It is also identifying sensitive life stages of organisms, as well as ways that aquatic features can be constructed to provide treatment for contaminants while establishing acceptable habitat for freshwater invertebrates and amphibians.
  • Watershed load modelling: Understanding water quality and sediment transport in a watershed is an important part of the reclamation planning. FORWARDIII focused significant effort on adjusting and refining the models to reflect the boreal forest of the Lower Athabasca watershed.
  • Benchmark modelling on natural and forestry disturbed watersheds: Ongoing monitoring of watersheds associated with FORWARD I and II allow for long-term calibration of the modelling efforts in the Lower Athabasca.

“The most novel findings are around aquatics and aquatic toxicology. We have pushed our knowledge and learnings beyond what we previously knew and this will improve our reclamation strategies.” – James Agate

It’s the findings from the toxicology component which James is particularly proud of.

“The most novel findings are around aquatics and aquatic toxicology,” he said. “We have pushed our knowledge and learnings beyond what we previously knew and this will improve our reclamation strategies.”

Preliminary findings indicate what the presence of suspended clay in OSPW has on the feeding rate and digestion efficiency of some freshwater invertebrates, as well as the adaptability of fish populations to the presence of naturally occurring bitumen in the oil sands mining regions.    

Learnings have also been advanced regarding impacts to amphibians, particularly tadpoles, resulting from contact with OSPW.

“Ultimately, the models derived from FORWARD III and future studies will form insightful templates to ensure successful reclamation in the boreal forests,” said Jenna Dunlop, director, COSIA’s Land EPA. “The phased approach we have adopted greatly increases our odds of success.”

For more information

Read more on Boreal Reclamation by COSIA members.


Preston McEachern, Ph.D, is an adjunct professor at the University of Alberta’s Civil & Environmental Department and a Principal Investigator for Forward III.

James Agate, B.Sc., is the Manager, Reclamation for Canadian Natural and the COSIA project lead.

Jenna Dunlop, Ph.D, MBA, is the Director of COSIA’s Land EPA.