Well Pad Reclamation and Research

Science Center Objects

Reclamation on lands impacted by energy development is complicated and extremely challenging in arid environments due to unstable soils, exotic species, and low and variable precipitation. The reclamation tactics employed by energy operators vary widely and outcomes can differ across plant communities and soil types. In order to address the knowledge gaps regarding how to successfully and efficiently achieve reclamation success across different ecological sites, the U.S. Geological Survey, Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have initiated a series of replicated experiments across environmental gradients in the Uinta Basin to generate information pertaining to what reclamation practices are most effective and where. 

We aim to install at least one new study site per year, beginning in 2018.  The studies evaluate soil preparation and seeding methods, soil amendments, weed control tactics, and seed mixes in mixed salt-desert shrub, Wyoming big sagebrush, black sagebrush, and greasewood plant communities. Information from these studies will not only benefit oil and gas reclamation but dryland restoration in general across the western US.

Background & Importance

Restoration plots

The RestoreNet side study at the Pelican Unit 1 study site, which compares two different seed mixes crossed with mulch, soil pits, Connectivity Modifiers, or biochar. (Credit: Rebecca Mann, USGS Southwest Biological Science Center. Public domain.)

In early 2017, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS; Southwest Biological Science Center in Moab, UT), Bureau of Land Management (BLM; Vernal, UT Field Office), and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS; Utah Field Office in Salt Lake, UT) initiated a collaborative project to conduct research addressing well pad reclamation practices in the Uinta Basin. The working group had discussed the status of well pad reclamation in the Uinta Basin, shared knowledge and resources related to reclamation of well pads, and had identified key research questions that may help to improve well pad reclamation strategies.  The outcome of these discussions was a formal plan for installing a network of study sites to represent the ecological sites that are commonly represented on lands developed for energy production in the Uinta Basin.

The overall research approach is to install at least one study per year on a well pad, one either recently plugged and abandoned, or an orphaned well pad that does not meet BLM reclamation standards in its current condition. Two sites have been installed to date, one in 2018 in a mixed salt desert shrub community and one in fall 2019 in a mixed black sagebrush-greasewood community.  Three more sites are planned for installation in 2020, and we will emphasize siting upcoming studies on well pads which are in potential habitat for species of concern, including but not limited to the Uinta Basin hookless cactus (Sclerocactus wetlandicus), shrubby reed-mustard (Schoenocrambe suffrutescens), and the greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus).

General Methods

A common study design framework is used for all study sites, but includes enough flexibility to enable tailoring experimental factors to address particularly pertinent challenges of individual sites. 

The common study design includes a set of eight macroplots (16m x 16m squares) in which to compare variables that are best implemented at large scales (e.g. soil preparation methods or seeding methods). Factors that can be tested at smaller scales (e.g. soil amendments, herbicides, or surface modification techniques) are applied at the split-plot level (in 8m x 8m quadrats within macroplots). An additional area on the well pad that is outside of the microplot layout will be utilized for a smaller-scale side study following the RestoreNet design.  In this side study, we allow for more detailed comparisons among multiple variables of interest, including weed control methods, seed mixes, soil amendments, and biological soil crust inoculation methods. 

Important Results

In fall 2018, we installed our first study site at the Pelican Unit 1 well pad on a Desert Loam (Shadscale) Ecological Site with loamy soil and relatively flat topography. At the macroplot scale, drill seeding on leveled ground was compared to broadcast seeding over tread-twisted (hummocked) soil.  A seed mix of 15 native plant species was used for both treatments. Split-plot factors included a weed control treatment (to be implemented in spring, 2020) and application of a soil tackifier (psyllium husk).  A side study following the RestoreNet framework was installed to compare the effects of Connectivity Modifiers, mulch, biochar, and soil pits on seeding success. 

In fall 2019, we installed our second study site at the CIGE 292 well pad, in a Desert Alkali Bench (Castlevalley saltbush) Ecological Site on a channery loam. We again compared drill seeding on leveled ground to broadcast seeding over tread-twisted (hummocked) soil at the macroplot scale, and used at the split-plot scale, tested soil tackifier (psyllium husk) and cedar mulch soil surface amendments.  Using the RestoreNet framework, we tested four different mulches and two weed control tactics in addition to the connectivity modifiers and soil pits.