Cenovus Named Energy Excellence Awards Champion For Paradigm Shift On Caribou Habitat Restoration

The second annual Energy Excellence Awards (EEAs) program, presented by the Daily Oil Bulletin, uniquely recognizes energy excellence and focuses on the advancement of collaboration within Canada’s energy industry.

For 2020, the DOB received close to 90 nominations in four broad awards categories — Project Execution Excellence; Innovation & Technology Excellence; Environmental Excellence; and Exporting Excellence — recognizing work completed last year. The nominees were further broken down into 12 subcategories across the four groupings, before being judged by a committee of industry leaders.

In the following days we will present the champions in each subcategory. Today, we feature the champion in Environmental Excellence in the subcategory of Cleantech: Land.

The Champions stories are compiled here, and access all the Finalists stories here.


Champion Announcement Podcast: Listen to our podcast announcing the champion of this category and a panel discussion on what makes organizations and technologies within this category stand out as it relates to lowering emissions, reducing freshwater use, and limiting surface disturbances.

Leading the discussion is Wendy Ell, director of strategic partnerships and industry development for Glacier Resource Innovation Group, which publishes the DOB. Joining her is Brian Van Vliet, with the environmental solutions division of Spartan Controls, Silver Sponsor of the EEAs; Morgan Rodwell, senior director of process technology for Fluor Canada, Gold Sponsor of the EEAs; as well as Jason Switzer, executive director of the Alberta Clean Technology Industry Alliance (ACTia).

Click here to listen.


Seismic lines created for oil and gas exploration are the leading anthropogenic contributor of boreal forest disturbances in northern Alberta. The linear clear-cut corridors, which can reach densities of up to 40 kilometres per square kilometre in grid-like networks, have impacted on biodiversity and, in particular, the decline of woodland caribou, a species-at-risk in Alberta.

According to studies conducted by researchers from the University of Alberta and Cenovus Energy Inc., current methods to reforest seismic lines are expensive, averaging $12,500 per kilometre, in part due to their remoteness — they are “exceedingly difficult to access,” making logistics a key challenge for restoration.

Cenovus is responding to the challenge through accelerated reclamation of abandoned linear features and wellsites within caribou ranges with its growing Caribou Habitat Restoration Program that is now the largest of its kind in the world. As part of its voluntary efforts to restore the habitat, Cenovus’s application of amphibious technology that is shifting the reclamation paradigm has been recognized as the Energy Excellence Awards champion for Environmental Excellence in Cleantech: Land.

Poor natural regeneration

Approximately 35 per cent of the world’s peatlands are within Canada, covering up to 50 per cent of northern Alberta. These treed peatlands are the preferred habitat of woodland caribou, allowing them to separate themselves from predators and other prey — predation is the limiting factor on woodland caribou survival.

Seismic lines increase access for both white-tailed deer and moose, as well as their primary predator, wolves — leading to greater predation rates on caribou.

“Many seismic lines have experienced poor tree regeneration since initial disturbance, with most failures occurring in treed peatlands that are used by the threatened woodland caribou,” said the research report, Caribou Conservation: Restoring Trees on Seismic Lines in Alberta, Canada, published in 2019.

Forest recovery to disturbance is slow and of high conservation value given the local use of these habitats by woodland caribou. The mechanized creation of seismic lines can remove peat and soil, and create a depressed surface that stunt tree growth for periods of over 50 years.

“The decades of poor tree density that are experienced on these lines act as pathways of low resistance to wolves and are detrimental in effect to the caribou population,” it says. But with the higher tree densities brought about in the relatively short term, less than four years on treated lines, reclamation efforts “can function as obstacles to wolf movement and should benefit caribou populations if the densities stay consistent into the future.”

Restoration projects, such as those by Cenovus and the Regional Industry Caribou Collaboration, aim to restore seismic lines in woodland caribou habitat by using mechanical site preparation to stimulate the survival and growth of seedlings.

Many studies already suggest that mechanical site preparation is the most cost-effective treatment to apply for seedling survival and growth. The recent study found that mechanical site preparation increased tree density when compared to untreated lines on average resulting in 1.6-times more regenerated tree stems per hectare than untreated lines.

Year-round restoration

Historically the industry has relied on frozen winter conditions to conduct mechanical reclamation and restoration treatments on otherwise swamp-like terrain. Frozen conditions present several challenges, however, for both the quality and effectiveness of treatments but also, more importantly, for safety. With the expectation of warmer winters and more climate variability in the future, the winter construction season is even shorter and less predictable, notes the company.

“In previous years we have dealt with repeated incidents with equipment breaking through the ice and we are actively developing alternatives to winter-only access. In addition, we are limited to a few simple types of site preparation that can be completed through frost,” explained Cenovus.

The project uses techniques such as mounding the ground, planting trees on these mounds, adding woody debris and leaning tree stems into the pathways to help cover historical corridors. The company has found that amphibious excavators were able to transit over muskeg without impediment and without leaving a significant footprint. In fact, even an amphibious all terrain vehicle left a greater impact.

It also determined that amphibious excavators were able to cross water bodies without damage to bed or banks of the water body as stipulated by regulation. And Cenovus found that restoration treatments conducted in non-frozen conditions were of better quality and effectiveness that those completed in wintertime.

Using machines that can drive on land and float on water is a first for restoration in the oilsands, according to Cenovus. After several years of testing amphibious vehicles and equipment, it recently made the decision to fully integrate them into its land restoration plans.

Unlike conventional excavators, amphibious vehicles can maneuver through the muskeg in the summer and fall when the ground is thawed, the company said, giving it flexibility to engage in land restoration activities throughout the year. By applying treatments in non-frozen conditions, a host of new techniques are possible, including tree transplants, use of implements that may speed up treatments by three-fold, and overall much better quality control, it said.

“Amphibious vehicles are a game-changer because we can restore land in any season, at a faster pace, lower cost and with minimal environmental impact,” said Ted Johnson, Cenovus group lead, Environmental Solutions & Systems.

To build on its land restoration and wildlife protection activities, Cenovus has set two long-term targets. The first is a commitment to complete reclamation of 1,500 decommissioned wellsites over the next 10 years, representing 75 per cent of the company’s existing wellsites that are no longer in use and are set for reclamation. The second is to voluntarily spend $40 million between 2016 and 2030 to restore more land within caribou ranges than is disturbed by Cenovus’s activity.

According to the Cenovus website, “Amphibious vehicles are now an integral element of our Caribou Habitat Restoration Project to return 4,000 kilometres of old seismic lines and other linear features to forest cover by 2030 and plant up to five million trees. This project, announced as a voluntary initiative in 2016, is now a component of our land and wildlife sustainability targets launched in January 2020.”

Added Alex Pourbaix, Cenovus president and CEO: “Biodiversity is extremely important to our business and to our stakeholders in the areas where we operate. Our activities on the landscape are temporary, and we have always taken a proactive approach to liability management, developing reclamation plans even before we begin work on a project. We will continue to take biodiversity considerations into account as we plan business decisions in the future in an effort to reduce our company’s impact on land and wildlife.”


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