Innovation in reclamation

Corporate Responsibility

Innovation in reclamation

As part of our commitment to responsible operations, we work to reduce and manage our impact on the land. Each project phase — from design and operation to final reclamation — includes detailed planning to ensure careful consideration is given to the resulting footprint. Every effort is made to return the landscape to a healthy ecosystem upon completion of the project — whether that is boreal forest, native prairie or farmed land. Continuous improvement and innovation leads to increasingly efficient reclamation work.

Native prairie reclamation research

Native prairie reclamation includes the re-establishment of soils and vegetation that complements the adjacent landscape. Our approach fosters innovation in land management practices, working closely with landowners and land managers, and accelerates reclamation time.

We have been pursuing alternative re-vegetation strategies that include transplanting native hay, which acts as a natural seed source and retains moisture. We are also using lightweight panels made from salvaged tubing designed to protect the native grass seedlings site by minimizing cattle grazing at our reclamation sites, while still allowing for normal wildlife grazing on the rest of the site. We had high success with this project at a group of well sites being reclaimed in Southeast Alberta. We constructed over 1,000 vegetation panels and recently expanded their application to include access roads.

We also field tested the use of a vegetation core tool to collect and transplant native grass species on our reclamation sites. Additionally, we worked with a specialized equipment provider to reclaim low-disturbance trails in the native grasslands. The selective application of topsoil, novel use of vegetation panels, seeding and native straw crimping have reduced the time needed to re-vegetate grassland sites from three-five years to two-four years, while also adding a greater diversity of natural species on reclaimed sites.

Left: Native grasslands trial with crimped straw and vegetation panels. Right: Vegetation crew working on well centre with native coring tool.

Bio-remediation for soil treatment

Canadian Natural is using a micro-organism treatment process that employs purified bacteria capable of mineralizing petroleum hydrocarbons into carbon dioxide (CO2) and water. This enhanced bio-treatment process allows for treatment of hydrocarbon affected soil without excavation (in situ) or following excavation (ex situ), often with only one application, removing the need for further soil aeration.

Micro-organism soil remediation provides an environmentally friendly and cost-effective solution by avoiding excavating and trucking materials to a landfill, and the treated soil can be used for backfill. Enhanced bio-remediation was initiated at two remote locations within the Nipisi light oil waterflood field in 2015, and we are monitoring the success of the pilot sites.

We have been actively involved in developing protocols and policy around outcome-based remediation, working together with regulators to accelerate the pace of site reclamation. For example, in our Karr Creek operations (near Grande Prairie) we received regulatory approval to employ in situ bio-remediation.

Watercourse crossing remediation

Another important example of our reclamation activity involves working together with the Alberta government and regulator to support and develop the Roadway Watercourse Crossings Remediation Directive. In the past, we primarily managed roadway watercourse crossing issues as they arose. To manage our capital more effectively and provide improved outcomes for fish populations, we shifted to a proactive approach involving a road inventory and stream crossing assessments process, as well as remedial work. We have contributed to a complete dataset that is used to remediate fish habitat and save threatened fish populations.

Peat land research

Canadian Natural is conducting research on peat land reclamation with the goal of improving reclamation of sites in this ecosystem. Muskeg can be difficult to restore to its original condition. These trials will allow us to measure the effectiveness of peat land reclamation on multi-well pads located in muskeg areas to match the surroundings. The peat land ecosystem is home to a diversity of flora and fauna and some of the vegetation can naturally capture CO2 from the atmosphere.

Advancing understanding of oil sands reclamation

At our Oil Sands Mining and Upgrading operations, valuable reclamation research and monitoring are conducted on a regular basis to investigate the ecological performance of our reclaimed areas. The data collected from our research is helping us develop best practices to promote the re-establishment of native forest and plant communities. By the end of 2017, we had progressively reclaimed a total of 735 hectares at our Oil Sands Mining and Upgrading operations. Additionally, through ongoing activities on corridor lines, we are re-establishing 1,300 hectares of continuous forest at Horizon. We have planted 60,700 trees at AOSP since June 2017 and the one millionth tree will be planted at Horizon in 2018.

Ongoing vegetation research at reclaimed Horizon sites.

Research will not only enhance our own future reclamation efforts, but also those of the industry as a whole. Many of these projects take place in collaboration with other members of Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), helping all oil sands operators advance reclamation techniques. Some of these projects are:

  • ‘Islands’ for soil placement - Extensive research and monitoring work at Horizon has helped determine that different cover soils provide different benefits to plant communities. With all the knowledge from this previous research work, practitioners are now seeking to develop an effective soil placement mix or ‘recipe’ to maximize tree and understory species establishment. Salvaged soil is strategically placed on reclaimed sites to develop the most efficient soil recipe, derived from a combination of both upland forest-floor mineral mix (known to carry higher plant diversity) and lowland based peat-mineral mix (proven most efficient for deciduous tree regeneration).
  • Wetlands research - This project focuses on monitoring the development and health of naturally-formed wetlands on reclamation areas. Over a three-year timespan, this research will aim to understand how reclamation wetlands respond to environmental stresses. An index of biological integrity will be used to integrate sampling data from wet meadow and open water zones, allowing for wetland health to be tracked on an ongoing basis.
  • The Oil Sands Vegetation Cooperative (OSVC) is another example of industry working together to ensure an abundant supply of native plants for reclamation. This project enables collaborative harvesting and banking of native boreal forest seeds for use in revegetation and research. Companies collect native boreal forest seeds that are sent to nurseries, where they are cleaned and stored and then grown when required. Research on storage and propagation techniques also occurs within the OSVC, allowing native boreal forest plants to be grown on a large scale. This project provides support for seed collection initiatives applied in the Athabasca region and Cold Lake area.
  • Understanding soil stockpiles to enhance land reclamation. The Genomics Enhanced Reclamation Index (GERI) Stockpile project, led by Canadian Natural in collaboration with the Canadian Forest Service and the University of Alberta, is helping us understand how soils may change while they are stockpiled, to determine how best to manage them in land reclamation activities. Reclaiming upland forest ecosystems is a focus for both mining and in situ oil sands operations.
  • Demonstration pit lakes. Industry is also researching the viability of pit lakes for treating process affected water, sequestering tailings and ecologically sustainable landscape components, as part of oil sands mine closure plans. We are using mesocosms as an experimental model that replicates natural ecosystems, to balance controlled laboratory conditions with the advantages of field studies. The first study was initiated in 2017, with 30 in-ground walled aquatic mesocosms, to observe what happens when oil sands materials are added to these model ecosystems.
OSVC research - Alnus fruit