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Balancing wildlands and Oil: Perspectives of working in Northern Alberta

Written by Andrea Borkenhagen, 2017-2018 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph. D. Candidate in the Graduate Degree program in Ecology and the Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship.

Ten years ago, I was paddling across a wetland in the boreal of Alberta. I had been contracted to survey for impacts from the oil sands mine across the road to make sure the wetland was healthy. Even though we were next to development, it felt like we were in the middle of wilderness.

A loon’s call echoed across the water as our canoe navigated past a beaver lodge and through the cattail marsh. We stopped to identify the plants and I dipped my hand in to have a closer look at the smaller species. There they were, Wolffia borealis (northern watermeal) and Riccia fluitans (liverwort), two rare plants in Alberta1.

I knew then that it was possible.

With thoughtful planning and monitoring, it was possible to have development while conserving biodiversity.

I know oil sands mining is controversial, but I have seen a lot of progress as well. The protection of rare plants and ecosystems, industry supporting novel restoration approaches, and passionate people who strive to mitigate impacts.

The boreal of Alberta is a beautiful place.

I worked for many years in Alberta to survey the land, identifying all the plants along our path. We would walk through upland forests of aspens and poplars rustling over willow, gooseberry, and rose thickets. The perfect place to cross paths with a bear or wasps nest. Drier forest sites had sandy soils with lodgepole pine and dense carpets of blueberries and puffy-white reindeer lichen. Descending from the hillsides, wetter depressions support paper birch trees with airy fields of horsetail2. River alders bushels entwine to buttress the soggy ground, hiding sink holes amongst cow-parsnip and sedge grass leaves. Further down still, the alder wall breaks to a view of scattered patches of larch, willows and bog birch over a blanket groundcover of moss3. Rubbers boots are necessary in these saturated fen peatlands as you float on mats of moss and sedges. In some areas moss mounds can grow into bog peatlands with pillows of red and green sphagnum and small gnarly black spruce4. Here, the horse flies and mosquitos viciously buzz and bump into your face looking for crevasses to burrow into for a chance to bite unprotected flesh5.

This pristine landscape hides underlying black gold.

Alberta has the third largest reserve of oil in the world. Millions of years ago, an inland sea existed on our continent where salty sand and marine organisms accumulated. Pressure and temperature transformed the organic matter into petroleum deposits we have today. Currently, the entire deposit is estimated to be under 142,200 km2 of the boreal forest, or about the land area of Illinois.

The vast majority of the deposit is deep underground (97%) and extracted by steam injection that separates the oil from the sand. The oil is brought up and saline water is pumped down in replacement. On the surface, these facilities are a network of roads and pipes connecting drill pads and refineries6. The surrounding land is continuously evaluated for impacts from disturbance. Routine monitoring tracks and prevents changes to water movement, water chemistry, plant communities, and wildlife habitat.

Mines are different.

Where the reserves are close to the surface, the deposit is open pit mined. The dense mixture of oil, sand, and water is scooped into enormous trucks and separated with hot water in extraction plants7. The oil is upgraded, the water recycled, and the remaining slurry is set out to dry in huge ponds so the sand can be used to rebuild the landscape. The minable surface area is estimated to cover 4,800 km2, about the land area of Rhode Island. As of a few years ago, the area of disturbance is over 750 km2, or 5 times the size of Fort Collins, Colorado. This means there is a lot of work that needs to be done, and this is where I come in as a reclamation scientist.

After days of training, we are certified to enter the facility and we drive up to the secure gate to swipe authorized passes. The drawbridge lowers, and we set course to meet with our coordinating personnel. We obtain a work permit, attend a safety meeting, drive on a pre-approved passage, don safety equipment, prepare for our daily tasks, and set foot onto our reclamation site.

We look across our site and get ready for a day of measurements, essential to assess condition and trajectory. How have we succeeded and what needs fixing?

Restoration is assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed

Reclamation is reconstructing the entire landscape that now lacks original topography, hydrology or biotic composition

At about two football fields in size, we have constructed one of two fen peatlands in the region. It was years in the making and supported by many government, industry, and academic institutions. Some of the strongest proponents where the industry leaders themselves. They coordinated with the government to tackle the huge gap in our understanding of how to rebuild peatlands in the oil sands region. Teams of researchers from Canada and the US worked to tackle problems that had never been assessed, develop methods that had never been tested, and implement a project that moved the bar of reclamation achievements.

Years ago, there was a pit. After hundreds of dump trucks, there was a hill and a basin. After careful placement, there was a peat soil surface ready for experimentation. And after planting and instrumentation by hordes of committed researchers, there has been intense evaluation of the site for the last five years. We experimented with different methods to figure out how to introduce desirable plants. We spread seeds and moss8, planting thousands of seedlings9, pulled weeds, and documented plant growth in wet and dry areas10.

Today, there is an upland forest of aspens, willows and rose thickets that transitions into a saturated fen peatland with a squishy mat of moss and sedges11.

The results are immensely encouraging. We were able to recreate plant communities similar to those found in natural areas of the region. There will always be more to test and aspects to refine, but we can confidently say that we have rebuilt a fen peatland.

We return every year. We reevaluate changes, we ask new questions, we change things that need changing, and we admire the work.

Our overall goal is to develop methods that improve reclamation outcomes and consider post-oil sands mining constraints. I want you to know that scientists are working closely with industry and government to improve the process. Over the last seven years, I have discovered how plants react to reclaimed systems, investigated patterns of change, and identified drivers that influence ecosystem health and function. This research forms that basis for which I can recommend avoiding disturbance to high-value ecosystems, propose strategies that minimize impacts, and develop methods that restore the pre-disturbance state.

This project is funded by oil sands organizations and the Canadian government. It is therefore our responsibility to facilitate their and your understanding of the issues and advances in reclamation ecology. We will continue to advance our ability to mitigate impacts of development and resource extraction on biodiversity in Alberta’s boreal. My hope to always be able to paddle across the water, listen to the birds, and take a closer look at the smaller things around me.

Beyond the narrative: For more information on our project, visit Andrea’s personal website.


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