Reclamation is the combined processes by which adverse environmental effects of oil and gas development are minimized and mitigated. The goal of reclamation is to return disturbed lands to the same, or closely similar, conditions that existed prior to the commencement of oil and gas operations. Reclamation is an important aspect of oil and gas development, in which disturbed lands are restored to productive or beneficial use, such as wildlife habitat, agriculture, or recreation.1
Surface reclamation occurs in several basic phases: interim reclamation and final reclamation. Interim reclamation occurs in areas disturbed by drilling, completion, and well-stimulation activities, but is not needed for ongoing production operations. Final reclamation occurs after well plugging and facility closure. State, local, federal, or tribal agencies may also have a substantial planning phase for reclamation even before a well is drilled or infrastructure is constructed. This planning phase may involve preparing a detailed land reclamation plan included as an attachment to the application for permit to drill, or as part of a separate permit for the construction of an oil and gas location. Regulatory agencies also have rules and guidance regarding site construction designed to minimize the alteration of natural features and to protect soils affected by oil and gas operations.2
To provide adequate space for drilling and well stimulation operations, the well pad or location is generally larger than needed for ongoing production operations (Figure 1). Once the drill rig has been demobilized and subsequent operations have ceased, interim reclamation of these disturbed areas should begin as early as practicable. Interim reclamation involves a series of standard steps and processes as discussed below.3
Well Pad During Drilling Operations
The initial step is to ensure all unnecessary equipment and waste materials are removed. Depending on the drill-rig configuration and operation there may be several pits, ratholes, cellars or other borings to backfill.
Closure of the drilling/reserve pit occurs during interim reclamation. Various agencies may have more stringent requirements, but the basic process is to remove drilling fluids, ensure remaining pit contents are sufficiently dry and meet appropriate environmental and agronomic parameters pit is then backfilled by replacing soil horizons to their original positions and the area recontoured. In most areas a minimum of three feet of cover should be provided and the site monitored to ensure no subsidence occurs.
Following pit closure the areas no longer needed for production should be graded and recontoured to the original topography, to the extent possible.
After grading and recontouring, the areas compacted by drilling and subsequent operations should be decompacted to promote successful revegetation. Decompaction allows for greater water infiltration and greater aeration of soils. Decompaction by deep ripping and cross ripping is a standard and recommended practice.3
Following decompaction, stockpiled soil horizons are replaced to their original positions and contoured to achieve erosion control and long-term stability. On cropland these areas should be tilled to provide an adequate seed bed. On non-croplands these areas should be reseeded to promote the establishment of a sustainable plant community.
Reseeding with native species or species consistent with the adjacent plant community is encouraged. Identifying and developing the right seed mixture is critical; the seed mixture may be included in planning documents such as a reclamation plan or an approved permit. On federal lands the seed mixture will most likely be provided by the Bureau of Land Management or U.S. Forest Service. In some states the surface owner has the right to identify their preferred seed mixture. Surface owners, oil and gas operators, and reclamation contractors can consult with a representative of the local soil conservation district to determine the proper seed mixture. Because conservation districts are established under state law, they are often referred to differently depending on where they are located.
Production Facility Following Interim Reclamation
Once an area has been reseeded the operator’s reclamation contractor should develop and follow a long-term monitoring plan so that problems can be identified and controlled early. The plan should include review of seeding success, erosion issues, and management of noxious weeds. Repairing failed reclamation efforts can add significant costs to the overall reclamation program including costs to reseed, regrade, or to repair or install new erosion control best management practices.4
Landowners may request that certain features such as culverts and drainage ditches be retained during the reclamation process. Unless retaining these features violates a permit or local regulations, oil companies are generally open to working with surface owners.
- California Department of Conservation, What is Mine Reclamation? accessed March 17, 2023, https://www.conservation.ca.gov/dmr/SMARA%20Mines/reclamation.
- Bureau of Land Management, Reclamation Stages, accessed March 17, 2023, https://www.blm.gov/programs/energy-and-minerals/oil-and-gas/reclamation.
- Canada’s Oil & Natural Gas Producers, Land Reclamation, accessed March 17, 2023, https://www.capp.ca/explore/land-reclamation.
- Jay Norton, 2013, Reclamation Considerations for Oil and Gas Lease Contracts on Private Lands Authors University of Wyoming Calvin, Strom, Research Associate, Wyoming Reclamation and Restoration Center, 2013, B-1242.
Images: “Well Pad During Drilling Operations” by Courtesy West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization; “Production Facility Following Interim Reclamation” by Courtesy West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization