“As the in situ oil sands industry expands into more wetlands areas, having a sound science and practical approach to reclamation will increase stakeholder confidence and help ensure industry’s license to operate.”
With approximately 4,000 wells drilled from more than 200 multi-well pads, Imperial Oil’s Cold Lake operation is the largest thermal in situ, heavy oil operation in the world representing more than four per cent of Canada’s total oil production. The operation itself is on a 780-square-kilometre lease.
The Boreal Forest
The boreal forest occupies 35% of the total
Canadian land area and 77% of Canada's total
forest land, stretching between northern tundra
and southern grassland and mixed hardwood trees.
The boreal forest contains one of the highest
concentrations of wetlands in the country.
About 0.02 per cent of the forest has been disturbed
by oil sands mining over the past 40 years.
Boreal Forest - Natural Resources Canada
One of the complex, long-term challenges of working on a land area this size is the reclamation of well sites, many of which are situated on top of sensitive wetlands within the boreal forest. Wetlands are important components of an eco-system, providing water storage and filtration, habitat and recreational benefits.
Hanna Janzen was the environmental team leader responsible for overseeing the development of the Cold Lake wetland reclamation trial, a pilot project that is evaluating the best ways to remove well pads when the wells have reached the end of their economic life. The goal is to do so in a way that allows the natural vegetation and wildlife to return to the area.
To determine the best way to tackle the problem, Hanna consulted with wetland experts from Ducks Unlimited. “Our collaboration with Ducks Unlimited has been invaluable to this project. We greatly benefited from their expertise and we hope to continue working with them for years to come.”
During construction of a well site, a geotextile liner and clay pad are placed over top of the wetland. Wells are then drilled from the pad to recover the oil that lies deep beneath. In December 2008, with technical advice from Ducks Unlimited and a well-thought-out reclamation action plan, Hanna and her team removed the clay overburden and liner from an old pad. She was pleased to see water returning immediately, as anticipated. Although the project is still in the early stages, initial indicators show that wetland habitat and vegetation are rebounding. Full reclamation of the wetland may take several years.
Rick Shewchuk, head of wetland protection and restoration for Ducks Unlimited’s western boreal program says the results could have huge implications for future reclamation efforts. “We’re definitely talking about leading edge research here.”
Hanna agrees and also points out that there are several more spin-off benefits from a project like this, including improved relations with stakeholders and the public.
Imperial Oil has seen the rewards that working with the experts can provide. The company continues its quest to find workable solutions for reducing the impact of operations on wetlands, partnering on other projects with the University of Alberta, Canadian Oilsands Research and Development (CONRAD), the forestry industry, and other in situ operators.