Northern Alberta is home to a rich, biodiverse landscape but, striking a balance between vital resource development and preserving the plant and wildlife habitat in the region can be a challenge.

Clayton Dubyk, a land and environmental expert working in Shell Canada’s oil sands business, is part of a unique pilot project that is meeting that challenge with an innovative approach to re-vegetation.

“Historical oil and gas exploration practices have created long cutlines in the boreal forest which are clear of trees and which have not re-grown on their own over the years,” says Dubyk explaining that open cutlines give predators a clear line of sight to prey on caribou. “Woodland caribou are a species-at-risk in Canada with declining populations and there is a province-wide and industry-wide focus to reverse this trend.”

Traditional tree planting might seem like an obvious solution to reforest cutlines but the terrain is complex. The area is largely made up of wetlands which are far too saturated during warm months for a conventional approach.

Through Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), Shell Canada learned of a novel approach developed by Nexen for restoring and re-vegetating areas which are normally difficult to access, and which also lie in prime caribou habitat in northern Alberta.

"There are a lot of great successes through this project so far, and it’s a pilot, so there is potential to take it further."

Dubyk

Shell is one of COSIA’s 13 member companies - a unique collaboration of oil sands operators, who compete in business, but who have agreed to share environmental technologies in pursuit of more rapid and effective environmental solutions across the industry.

With the help of Nexen’s mounding technique, Shell’s Caribou Habitat Restoration Project saw nearly 15,000 black spruce trees planted along 31 linear kilometres within its Grosmont in-situ lease area in 2014. This remote part of the boreal forest posed extremely challenging environmental conditions with temperatures around -30 Celsius and areas that can only be accessed in the winter during frozen ground conditions to support the heavy equipment required.

“There are a lot of great successes through this project so far, and it’s a pilot, so there is potential to take it further,” says Dubyk. “It’s also been great working with the local community. We’ve been able to employ locals’ knowledge of the land as part of the planning, and we’ve employed companies owned by local First Nations, which helps foster and strengthen local capacity.”

The Caribou Habitat Restoration Project will improve functional caribou habitat in West Side Athabasca Caribou Range and help mitigate the existing oil sands disturbance footprint by creating restoration and conservation areas. Its early success is a testament to what can be achieved through collaboration facilitated by organizations like COSIA and with local communities.

To date, Shell has conserved approximately 30 percent of land disturbed by its oil sands operations.

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