Canada’s oil and natural gas industry is committed to effective land management. Regulations ensure disturbed land is returned to an acceptable state once operations have reached the end of their productive life.
What is Land Reclamation?
Returning disturbed land to a usable state is called land reclamation. The process of land reclamation by the oil and natural gas industry ensures that the land used is returned to a productive state.
Reclamation of oil and natural gas production sites actually starts even before a well is drilled or other infrastructure is constructed. Detailed land reclamation plans form part of a company’s application for approval of a project. Once a project is approved, as part of the land management and reclamation plan, soil (sometimes including muskeg or peat) is removed and stored for use when the site is reclaimed.
Steps in Land Reclamation
When operations have ceased, land reclamation follows standard steps, including:
- Ground re-contouring, including drainage systems.
- Replacing subsoil, topsoil and organic material salvaged before land disturbance.
- Revegetation and seeding.
- Monitoring soil and water quality and vegetation establishment.
Like many aspects of the oil and natural gas industry, land reclamation has come a long way over the past 50 years, with companies making efforts to conduct research and restore disturbed land more quickly and effectively.
Reclaiming Natural Gas Well Sites
The average life of a natural gas well is 20 to 30 years.
Reclamation of natural gas well sites begins at the project planning phase when operators develop plans in consultation with local stakeholders and government regulators. Once a natural gas well is no longer able to produce, physical reclamation of the site begins.
In both Alberta and British Columbia, the operator of a well site is responsible for reclaiming or restoring the land once a well is no longer able to produce. These obligations are mandated by the provincial regulator. Operators must clean up well sites both on the surface and subsurface to ensure the well is safely abandoned. Throughout the reclamation process, soil, surface water and groundwater are tested to ensure the reclaimed land is not contaminated and does not pose a risk to the environment, health or safety.
Once land reclamation of a natural gas site is complete, monitoring begins. It can take 15 years or longer to effectively establish a successful ecosystem. When the operator believes the site is self-sustaining, the operator can apply for a reclamation certificate or a certificate of restoration. The regulator conducts an assessment of the site — additional work may be required before the land is considered a self-sustaining ecosystem. Reclamation certificates are only issued when long-term monitoring demonstrates the reclaimed land meets the objectives of land capability.
Oil Sands Reclamation
Canada’s oil sands industry is committed to reducing its footprint, reclaiming all lands affected by operations, and maintaining biodiversity. Oil sands reclamation is an ongoing process during the life of the project. Oil sands operators must develop a plan to reclaim the land and have it approved by government as part of any project’s approval process.
Given the long life cycle of oil sands operations (25 to 50 years for an oil sands mine, 10 to 15 years for in situ), much of the industry’s land reclamation activity is still in early stages. Since oil sands operations began in the 1960s, about 8% of the active mining footprint has been or is being reclaimed. Companies are evolving their operations and technology, and continue to pursue ways to manage impacts on land.
Oil Sands Mining Reclamation
In oil sands mining, once an area is no longer needed for mining the operator contours the surface for drainage, replaces soil, and plants vegetation, trees and shrubs. Remediation of tailings ponds (settling basins containing a mix of water, clay, sand and residual bitumen) is another aspect of the oil sands mine reclamation process.
In Situ Reclamation
Eighty per cent of the oil sands resources are accessible using in situ methods. Land disturbance with in situ drilling is 10% to 15% of a similar-sized mining operation and produces no tailings ponds. When an in situ well is no longer productive, it is decommissioned. To return the land to a sustainable landscape, operators must cap the well, clean up contaminants, replace soil and replant vegetation. The provincial government issues a reclamation certificate when the reclaimed land meets regulatory requirements.
Progressive or “interim” reclamation is a standard best practice that means ‘cleaning up while you work.’ Progressive reclamation re-establishes part of the disturbed area that is no longer required for ongoing operations. For example, when drilling a natural gas well is complete and the well is producing, the drilling area can be recontoured and may be reseeded, while the well continues to produce for the next 20 to 30 years.
A reclamation certificate is issued when producers return reclaimed lands to the Government of Alberta. The state of the lands must meet landowner approval and regulatory requirements.
Monitoring and Applied Research
Canada’s oil and natural gas industry continuously improves environmental performance by investing in technologies and best practices to reduce impacts. Operators in Canada support sound scientific data collection and collaborate with each other, with government, communities and scientists to achieve this objective.
Today, the leading source of information for industry on species health is the Oil Sands Monitoring Program (JOSM). In addition, industry provides financial support to many research funds to enable continued research technologies and practices. Examples include:
How Oil Sands Companies Work Together to Reclaim Land
Through the Oil Sands Vegetation Cooperative, companies work together to bank seeds and reclaim the land using native plant species.