Environmental services and reclamation are vital aspects of the energy sector dynamic. They are often misunderstood and coping with a quagmire of regulations and quotas.
Yes, oil and gas are primary drivers of climate change. Yes, the environment is impacted during the extraction and processing of oil and gas. Yes, greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas are emitted when they are combusted to generate electricity, produce heat or power transport.
It is why Canada’s oil and gas sector continues to prioritize environmental and reclamation services.
“Whether it’s a mineral mine to produce batteries, a potash mine for producing fertilizers, a wind or solar farm, or an oil sands operation, Canada is fortunate to have an abundance of resources that are all critical for jobs, security and the prosperity of Canadians and communities,” notes the plugged-in Kendall Dilling, president of Pathways Alliance, comprising of Canada’s six largest oilsands companies.
“All these activities have impacts on the environment. That’s why oil sands operators are required to have detailed reclamation plans prior to approval by regulators.”
He explains that Pathways recognizes the urgency people have for that process to move as quickly as possible and it is why Pathways has implemented an ambitious GHG reduction plan, to significantly reduce emissions from oilsands operations by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050.
For the energy sector, environmental and reclamation services are a key focus.
Environmental consultants are highly trained individuals who have extensive knowledge of environmental regulations, advising clients in both the private and public sectors to ensure that projects adhere to regulations. Environmental consultants help a company avoid potential fines, legal action or misguided efforts that harm the environment. Environmental consultants are involved in many areas of the civil engineering world, dealing with energy-related issues like waste management policies, land, water and air contamination, environmental audits, environmental management systems, waste management policies and procedures and much more.
When it comes to environmental and reclamation services, progress is definitely happening!
“The Canadian energy industry, lead by the largest producers, is increasingly taking serious leadership roles at the national and international levels regarding environmental issues,” says the industry-revered Dr. Bob Schulz, professor of Strategic Management and academic director of Petroleum Land Management at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business. “Over 20 years, prodded by the government and strongly motivated by financial institutions (banks and funds), the Canadian energy sector has moved from national sector pushback to reluctant compliance to proactive innovations that the global industry needs.
“The result is significant importance of internal reporting, significant hiring of internal ESG people (environment, sustainability, governance),” he says, “and transparent public plans at AGMs, and reporting to financial institutions and shareholders.
The industry-savvy Schulz underscores the energy sector positivity. “Overall, my estimate is that Canadian energy sector emissions have been reduced by about 30 per cent intensity of emissions reduced by about 60 per cent, and company reduction targets increased by 90 per cent, all focused on 100 per cent change by 2050 or sooner.”
While industry insiders agree about the positive momentum of environmental and reclamation progress, some suggest that more can and should be done.
According to Calgary-based Audrey Mascarenhas, president and CEO of Questor Technology, with more than 25 years of creating innovative technology to help companies meet emissions reduction targets, “Two of the biggest impacts the energy sector has on the environment are the emissions from well sites, facilities, gas and oil processing, refining and transportation, and methane, pollutants, benzene, flaring and venting of waste gases or associated gas.
“While we have made some progress on reducing emissions, they are relatively minor. The focus has been entirely on routine fugitive emissions, like leaks, pneumatics, tank vapours.” She underscores the urgent need to focus on methane. “Methane is an enormous energy sector problem.
“Methane global warming potential is 86 times worse that CO2 over a 20-year period. As methane degrades, it eventually turns into CO2 over a 100-year period, but in doing so emits other harmful pollutants. Over 100 years, the global warming potential of methane is 28 times worse than CO2. Tackling methane is the low hanging fruit.”
“Technology is readily available,” the high-energy and industry-respected Mascarenhas notes with enthusiasm. “The cost is low and it can have a large impact immediately on the temperature rise. Dealing with the methane cleanly also improve air quality. Flaring and venting usually occurs in marginalized communities so this is also a social justice issue.”
Schulz agrees. “Compared to CO2, methane is said to have a 20 – 25 times higher multiple impact on climate change. Some major methane producers involve landfills, dairy manure and animal gas, electricity/steam generation and natural gas production.”
The oil and gas industry’s focus on the environment is a twin commitment to reclamation. Reclamation is the process of getting something useful from waste. This means that although something may be thought of as waste, it can be converted into something useful. One example of reclamation is when oil solids are recycled. Typically, when energy projects are finished, the land is abandoned. This is when the reclamation work can begin. To return the land to a functionally equivalent state before development, reclamation begins.
“Our industry is committed to meeting the rightful expectations of Canadians to reclaim 100 per cent of the land we disturb for our operations,” Kendall Dilling points out. “And we recognize the urgency people have for that process to move as quickly as possible. Since many oil sands facilities are early in what is often a decades’ long life cycle oil sands operators progressively reclaim portions of their operations that are no longer being actively mined.
“By reclaiming with self-sustaining native plant communities and soil contoured to blend in with the natural surroundings, operators are leaving behind the structure for ecosystems that support wildlife and traditional Indigenous uses. Operators are required to ensure the reclaimed areas will provide equivalent land capability in perpetuity.”
He highlights encouraging reclamation progress. Pathways Alliance facts and figures show that oil sands operators have permanently reclaimed 9,200 hectares of land, the equivalent area of more than 11,000 Canadian football fields, and includes advancing the reclamation of forested areas, where oil sands producers have planted more than 25 million trees since 2009.
Although environment and reclamation services are, by nature, bogged down in layers of regulations, Dilling admits that reclamation is a long process, with possibilities for overcoming some obstacles.
“We are working with the federal and Alberta provincial governments to address the need for a regulatory framework for safe, treated oil sands mine water release, which is essential to achieve oil sands mine reclamation outcomes and closure.
“Regulatory certainty on environmental policies would enable faster reclamation. There is a lack of clarity on water quality parameters and future landscape features is currently presenting significant obstacles to proceeding in a timely way.”
The positive and upbeat CEO notes that relies on sharing expertise and comparing problems and solutions, and that Pathways has been spearheading collaboration across competitors to share intellectual property since 2012, with the goal of reducing environmental impacts in their operations.
“No one technology will solve the environmental and reclamation challenges, and it will take a concerted effort of innovation to achieve.”