Find out how this researcher is helping restore lands to their natural state after oil and gas extraction.

Rich Petrone

When Canadian energy players establish or expand an oil and gas development they go into it knowing they must restore the existing landscape to an acceptable state. Doing so often requires hydrological and ecological expertise beyond their capabilities. That’s why they rely on researchers in the Faculty of Environment to guide them through the process to ensure the restoration of a healthy ecosystem.

“They’re mandated to put the land back to what they call “equivalent capacity,” and that means a lot of different things to different people,” explains Richard Petrone, a researcher in the Department of Geography and Environmental Management (GEM).

Petrone has been working for years studying the wetlands and forests in Canada’s western boreal forest to assess and advise energy companies on best practices, thus giving these ecosystems the best chance for a full recovery to sustainability.

So far, he and a research team led by GEM’s Jonathan Price have built one of the first reclaimed wetlands in the oil sands.

But this is just a start. More robust coordination with energy giants is needed to ensure that as much of the 140,000 square kilometres of directly affected oil sands land can be saved.

Traditionally, energy companies rely on a policy with a long list of indicators for reclamation. If they destroy a landscape, they’ll essentially put back something that resembles, at least in function, what they found when they arrived. They will go and do an inventory. If it’s supposed to be an aspen forest, they’ll go in and look for certain species, to look for physical soil properties, chemical properties, and if they tick off a certain number of boxes, they can rubber stamp it as a reclaimed.

However, “that area is really unique because it’s in a sub-humid climate. So it loses more water than it receives from precipitation,” says Petrone. Therefore, the next stage in Petrone’s research is refining, expanding and ultimately assessing exactly what “equivalent capacity” means.

On the surface, this may look like a restoration to “equivalent capacity,” but it’s not enough -- especially in the western boreal forest of Alberta. Thus, Petrone along with researchers from McMaster University and the University of Alberta are working on evaluating and refining current assessment policy and practices. It must ensure that we understand how an individual ecosystem’s water needs are balanced by those needs of neighbouring ecosystems in that sub-humid climate.

For Petrone this understanding starts long before any resource extraction begins. Complex ecosystems do not simply come into existence; they evolve naturally in stages over time, whereby certain species give way to others, until a resilient system is in place.

“If you build a wetland or a forest, how do they rely on one another?” says Petrone. “We know a natural system that a forest gets their water from is the wetlands, so if you plant a forest and it looks really productive, trees are growing, but its sucking the wetlands dry, that’s bad too. So we’re taking more of a landscape approach to reclamation.”

Before a company can design a reclamation project, Petrone and collaborators work with industry to employ a rigorous and sophisticated assessment of the land. In a sense this functions as a regression analysis whereby the desired end-state of an ecosystem can only be achieved by recognizing how it got there.

“One of the things we’re working on now too is trying to come up with the most effective assessment criteria,” Petrone says. “If they reconstruct a peatland, what are the things we can look at immediately that will tell us that it’s on the right track? A forest is going to take decades along its succession before it’s restored. Peatlands are even longer. Thousands, hundreds of years to a thousand years, so what can be tell from the first decade or so that we can rest assured that, yeah, this is on the right path and we feel confident.”