New research: Reclaimed land less productive

NOT RECOVERED ARECA finds land reclaimed from oil and gas lease sites, borrow pits, and gas pipelines can suffer a 10-bushel-an-acre yield drop

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Many producers suspect reclaimed industrial sites are less productive than surrounding land, despite claims to the contrary from oil and gas companies.

Recent research by the Agricultural Research and Extension Council of Alberta (ARECA) proves that producers are indeed correct, and provides a credible starting place for discussion about compensation.

“Because these sites were signed off by the province, the expectation is that the yield should be similar to the surrounding area. But, it wasn’t,” said Ty Faechner, ARECA’s executive director, who presented the study’s findings at a recent conference in Calgary.

The current evaluation process leading to reclamation sign-off is subjective, he said.

“Assessment is completely visual and relies on very few measurements,” said Faechner.

And while producers know there are productivity differences, until recently they haven’t been able to measure yield losses.

“When you go through those areas, you’ll see your combine yield monitor change, but by how much?” he said.

So Alberta Environment engaged ARECA, a non-profit agency that provides unbiased applied research for Alberta’s agricultural producers, to get hard facts on reclaimed land’s productivity.

Using combine-mounted yield monitors, researchers measured yield data from inside reclaimed sites and from the land immediately surrounding it. By dividing the plots into 20×20-metre grid cells, the researchers could analyze exactly how the yield changed over that area. The results were surprising.

“What we found is that when we did a statistical comparison of yield data from offsite areas compared to the well site area, the yield was very different,” said Faechner. “We’re talking (as much as) a 10-bushel yield difference where inside a specific site was 74 bushels an acre and outside was 83 bushels an acre.

“In 31 per cent of fields, there were significant crop yield differences. Of those fields (with crop yield differences), 78 per cent showed lower crop yields.”

Because of limited funding, the research sample was small, just 29 fields in total, and Faechner said a larger sample size is needed to verify the study’s findings.

“It’s a slice — clearly, it’s much better than we had before,” he said. “We’d like to be able to study this further, but what we have so far shows that there are inconsistencies between what is supposed to be reclaimed (and what is actually at full production).”

Currently, there are about 200,000 reclaimed industrial sites in Alberta, including oil and gas lease sites, borrow pits, and gas pipelines. Most are relatively small — typically three to four acres — but they can add up.

“There are so many of them, that cumulatively they may have a big impact on agricultural land in the province,” said Faechner.

Faechner called the research project a success.

“We’ve proven that GPS crop-yield mapping can be applied to statistically evaluate reclamation progress… using off-site controls to make accurate, objective and quantitative assessments,” he said.

“This is good, sound science. While farmers are compensated for industrial disturbances, I think this research provides a practical approach that’s reasonable to establish compensation and monitor the progress of reclamation, and I think the oil and gas industry would be in agreement since it helps manage risk.

“I think it really helps provide a discussion point where people don’t necessarily have to get into conflict over compensation. To me, it’s a way to manage the conversation in a much more constructive fashion.”

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