Peatland Ecology Research Group (PERG)
Université Laval
Suncor fen creation project 2008 - 2010

Description of the project:

In January 2009 Jonathan Price and Line Rochefort began a research project with Suncor, Energy to investigate the feasibility of creating peatlands after open-pit oil sand mining.  This project will test PERGs understanding of peatland ecology, as it is no longer restoration of disturbed peatland, but the creation of peatlands from scratch.

The last 20 years has seen an unprecedented expansion of open-pit oil sand mining in the boreal forest zone of northern Alberta. Since 2000, the oil sands industry has expanded significantly, and production now exceeds one million barrels crude oil per day (Bott 2000). Approximately 2 tons of oil sand is mined for each barrel of oil. The total area deemed suitable for surface mining is approximately 2500 km2 and active mining is occurring on over 250 km2 (Woynillowicz et al. 2005).

In this region, wetlands dominate the landscape. They comprise over 40% of the land base in northeastern Alberta and 90% of these are peatlands (Vitt et al. 1996). The oil sands companies have been criticized for not investing enough in the reclamation of peatlands (Grant et al. 2008). Currently, it is not known if peatlands can be recreated in post-mined landscapes, although modeling has demonstrated its feasibility (Price et al. 2010).  Processing oil sands produces large volumes of wet material called tailings. Tailings contain organic compounds such as Naphthenic Acids (NA) and Sodium (Na) which have a have a toxic effect on plants in this region. One of the greatest barriers to peatland creation will be the elevated amount of toxins (naphthenic acid, metals and salinity) present in the post-mined landscapes.



The goal of this research project is to investigate how oil sands process-affected waters will affect peatland vegetation, specifically fen vegetation. In particular, we would like to know:

·         How contaminants present in oil sand process affected water will be transported through peat,

·         How typical fen vegetation will react to a realistic contamination scenario in a controlled macrocosm environment,

·         How the microbial community in peat will react to sand process affected water contamination,

·         What are the contamination thresholds for typical fen species (including mosses, herbs and shrubs) are, and

·         What is primarily responsible for acute toxicity in fen mosses: naphthenic acids or sodium?

This experimental research project examines the plant responses in  greenhouse tubs (meso and microcosms) filled with peat, and introducing process-water with NA and Na, and studies the transport and attenuation processes of NA and Na through peat in a tub and a series of lab columns.

Research that responds to the above-mentioned questions will be taking a clear step towards addressing the future outcomes of oil sand affected landscapes. With this information, reclaimed landscape designs will be able to position peatlands in landscapes according to the amount of contamination they will tolerate. Additionally, peatland species which tolerate contaminated water will be identified.

This project is an interdisciplinary collaboration, as members of the research team come from different backgrounds in research, across Canada and even Scotland. Dr Jonathan Price (grant holder) and a postdoctoral fellow Fereidoun Rezanezhad, University of Waterloo, work on the transport of contaminants in the peat to understand how contaminants are dispersed in the rebuilt landscape ecosystems. Dr. Line Rochefort (co-owner of the grant), the postdoctoral fellow Martha Graf and the 3rd cycle student Rémy Pouliot,  from Université Laval, work on the response of vegetation in contaminated water. Dr. John Headly (Saskatchewan), focuses attention on the concentrations of naphthenic acids in plant tissues. He developed a new method to detect naphthenic acids in plant tissue. 2nd cycle students at Université Laval are responsible for the manipulations involved in the greenhouse. Dr. Roxane Andersen, postdoctoral fellow in Scotland, is responsible for microbial analysis on peat. This project, entitled "Response of fen plants in the Oil Sands", is sponsored by Suncor Energy inc.
Project's publication(s) & communication(s)


Bott, R. 2007. Canada's Oilsands. Canadian Centre for Energy Information. Calgary, AB.

Grant, J., S. Dyer, and D. Woynillowicz. 2008. Fact or fiction: oil sands reclamation. Pembina Institute. Available online at: Consulted on April 17th, 2009.

Price, J. S. , R.G. McLaren, and D.L. Rudolph. 2010. Landscape restoration after oil sands mining: conceptual design and hydrological modelling for fen reconstruction. International Journal of Mining, Reclamation and Environment, 24 (2): 109-123; DOI: 10.1080/17480930902955724. Available online at:

Vitt, D.H., L.A. Halsey, M.N. Thormann, and T. Martin. 1996. Peatland Inventory of Alberta. Prepared for the Alberta Peat Task Force, National Center of Excellence in Sustainable Forest Management, University of Alberta, Edmonton.

Woynillowicz, D., C. Severson-Baker, and M. Raynolds. 2005. Oil sands fever: The environmental implications of Canada's oil sands rush. The Pembina Institute, Drayton Valley, Alberta.


Related Links:

Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA), Reclamation Working Group:

Oil Sands Discovery Center:

Suncor, Energy:

Wood Buffalo Environmental Association:


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