EDMONTON – The challenge makes turning bitumen into oil seem like the easy part.
Faced with reclaiming open-pit mines that were once thriving wetlands, Suncor and Syncrude have been trying to do what’s never been done — rebuilding one of the most complex, diverse and delicate ecosystems in the boreal forest.
Three years into the ground-breaking, high-profile projects, early successes are emerging.
Suncor’s Nikanotee fen and Syncrude’s Sandhills fen are staying wet year-round. They’re growing some typical fen plants. Even better, they’ve begun to store carbon in their peaty depths.
“(That’s) one of the core functions of a fen ecosystem, so that’s really great,” said Joshua Martin, Suncor’s wetland reclamation director.
But the overall plant mix isn’t what it was. Soil and water chemistry has changed. Biodiversity has shrunk.
The fens don’t seem to be developing into what was there before and nobody really knows how they will evolve.
“We can’t kid ourselves,” said Jonathan Price of the University of Waterloo, one of the main experts behind Nikanotee. “We can’t replace nature.”
Fen recovery is so uncertain and expensive that one researcher suggests resources would be better used elsewhere.
“It’s useful for scientists, but I don’t think it’s cost-effective over large areas,” said the University of Alberta’s Lee Foote, who was involved with the projects for years before stepping back.
“We can pour all this money into a fruitless reclamation attempt or … turn around and take that money and do something really good with it.”
Fens are wetlands that are permanently waterlogged with an alkaline, peaty soil that stores vast amounts of carbon. They filter water and store it during dry years and are considered essential to the boreal ecosystem.
They are widespread throughout Alberta’s boreal forest and are thought to have originally covered more than half the combined leases of Suncor and Syncrude.
Suncor has promised to restore about one-fifth of the more than 100 square kilometres of wetland it plans to disturb. The company has only committed to the Nikanotee fen, which covers about 10 hectares.
They are, after all, finicky.
“Not too wet; not too dry,” said Dale Vitt, one of the experts advising Syncrude. “This sweet spot is where the fen plants come in.”
The water table is controlled by the contours of the land around and the layers of soil and rock underneath. In the oilsands, that landscape has to be completely rebuilt.
Only parts of Sandhills are working, acknowledged Vitt of Southern Illinois University.
Where the water is right, fen plants are burgeoning. But overall, fewer than half the species in Sandhills are desirable species. One area is turning into a poplar forest.
As well, both fens have been built atop a layer of leftover sand that’s had the bitumen removed. That’s creating problems as sodium and calcium from the sand leaches into the fens.
Neither Sandhills nor Nikanotee are as salty as some natural fens. The amount of sodium in the water changes the mix of plants that will grow.
“We’re still not at the mix of plants that we see in those (natural) systems,” said Price. “But it’s early in the game.
“It’s probably going to be centuries before these systems become indistinguishable from natural systems.”
Neither Syncrude nor Suncor have released the budgets for their pilot projects. Both companies say they’re committed to monitoring their fens for years to come.
Foote suggests at least some of the value of the fens has nothing to do with ecosystems.
“There is such a tremendous appetite for some good news stories in the oilsands,” he said. “There’s a lot of optics and image management here.
“A lot of promises and attempts were made in order to get social licence and regulatory licence to get their permits approved. They promised these things and they got their licence.
Alberta is almost half boreal forest, of which about .002 per cent has been affected by the oilsands, and it has a lot of fens.
Fens are always going to be too expensive and difficult for large-scale restoration, said Foote. The money being spent on Nikanotee and Sandhills — which he estimates in the tens of millions of dollars — might be better spent on other problems.
“I would rather see the government get the support dedicated towards other habitat maintenance.”
But Price said fens are crucial in the boreal forest, storing water through dry years that desiccate other types of wetlands.
“We’re not going to be able to put fens back to cover the same area that there was originally. But the idea is to put enough of them back so some of the biodiversity is ultimately achieved.”
— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960