This year marks the 10th anniversary of Faster Forests, a program to accelerate the recovery of oil sands exploration (OSE) sites to self-sustaining boreal ecosystems. Coinciding with the anniversary, ConocoPhillips Canada (CPC) is also celebrating the planting of the millionth tree or shrub on our Surmont oil sands lease! 

A Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) project, Faster Forests is led by CPC and currently includes Canadian Natural, Cenovus, CNOOC International North America, Husky Energy, MEG Energy and Suncor. It has led to the adoption of improved OSE site construction and reclamation practices and the planting of trees and shrubs to accelerate site recovery.

Since its inception, Faster Forests partners have planted more than five million trees and shrubs, on about 2,250 hectares. That’s equal to more than 4,200 football fields or 14,200 NHL hockey rinks!

“ConocoPhillips has been a leader in the development and broader adoption of the Faster Forests initiative since 2009,” says Kirk Johnson, president, CPC. “We are pleased to reach this milestone and remain committed to continuously improving our practices to ensure we leave behind self-sustaining boreal ecosystems that meet the expectations of our regulators, our Indigenous neighbours and the public.”

Before Faster Forests, historic reclamation practices, rooted in agriculture, often resulted in grassy sites with limited tree and shrub regeneration. Improved construction and reclamation practices, more suited to the boreal forest, protect and enhance the natural capacity of a site to regenerate. These practices preserve the diversity of growing sites that encourage a wide range of plant species to flourish.

For example, on upland sites minimal soil disturbance protects roots and encourages speedy natural regeneration. When soils are disturbed, they are placed back in a rough and loose manner, with coarse woody material spread throughout. On lowland or peatland sites, preserving mounds and hollows creates variable water levels to preserve diversity.

After the site is prepared for planting, Faster Forests sites are planted with a mix of coniferous and deciduous trees and shrubs that match the local ecological conditions. The selected plants include species important to local Indigenous communities and the forestry sector. The diversity of species and the care taken to match plants with the site conditions increases the potential for a positive result.

“Through this collaboration with industry, academics and the Alberta Energy Regulator, we have shared successes, learned from failures and captured a decade of insights in technical and visual guides to share with a larger audience,” says Robert Albricht, senior coordinator, environmental projects.

“Broad adoption of the Faster Forests techniques increases the resilience of reclaimed site and accelerates the establishment of forest while reducing overall costs.” Ultimately, by applying the principles of Faster Forests at a large scale, we increase reliability of reclamation outcomes and contribute positively to achieving landscape level ecological benefits.