This article was published by COSIA on Nov. 19, 2019.
By its nature, oil sands development—particularly mining—disturbs surface lands. Sections of forest in Northern Alberta have been cleared so the underlying bitumen can be recovered. The amount of land disturbed over the past 60 years of oil sands development is about 900 square kilometres—a relatively small (0.2 per cent) disturbance compared to the 371,000 square kilometres of boreal forest in Alberta—but an important priority when it comes to land reclamation and sustainable development.
In fact, all oil sands producers are required by law to return these disturbed lands back to a state equivalent to what it was before the disturbance: i.e., a self-sustaining habitat with native vegetation capable of supporting wildlife.
It’s a requirement and a responsibility companies take seriously: as shown by a unique and important collaborative effort called the Oil Sands Vegetation Cooperative, or OSVC.
“The OSVC is a fantastic example of collaboration in action,” said Jack O’Neill, Director Land EPA at COSIA. “The synergy of the COSIA member companies far exceeds the sum of each one of their individual contributions. By working together, member companies have a space to collectively discuss and then act on a number of items including best practices, seed propagation, inventory challenges and the development and implementation of strategies to address these items.”
Seeds for the Oil Sands
The Oil Sands Vegetation Cooperative (OSVC) supports the successful reclamation of disturbed areas in the oil sands. It is also “a project whose time has come” says Ann Smreciu, the lead for the OSVC. The concept of a provincial seed bank had been on Smreciu’s mind for over 30 years. The reclamation work she was doing in the grasslands earlier in her career highlighted the need for seed collection and banking, but at that time there was no broad, formal initiative.
That changed in 1993, when she started working in the Alberta oil sands region with Syncrude, Suncor, Canadian Natural, Imperial and Shell. There, she met the like minds of Rob Vassov, now Reclamation Operations Lead at Canadian Natural and Clayton Dubyk, now Reclamation Coordinator, also at Canadian Natural. These two reclamation specialists would often meet in the field and share their challenges. One of the recurring themes they discussed was never getting enough seed to meet their replanting needs, and how to get the seed they needed.
This informal dialogue developed into action when they recognized that they could work together, leverage each other’s resources, and collaborate with other vegetation specialists. Together, they started a vegetation cooperative to harvest seed. Six oil sands mining companies operating in the Northern Athabasca Oil Sands area agreed to participate in coordinated seed harvesting and banking, and the OSVC was born. As Rob Vassov describes “This homegrown initiative was built out of need, supported and driven by professionals willing to collaborate in the field and share the common challenges facing them.”
Since then, the OSVC has grown. It’s expanded its membership to include companies involved in In Situ development. The companies have moved the project into the Land Environmental Priority Area (EPA) portfolio at Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), allowing for even greater collaborative efforts and sharing of resources. Through these changes, the OSVC membership has grown, and so did the types of seeds being collected and the areas from which they are harvested. The OSVC now includes collecting initiatives in the Southern Athabasca Oil Sands and the Cold Lake regions.