Air Water Land: June 2011
Inside big oil
Environmental scientists take on the opportunity to effect significant change from within
Christine Daly never expected to be working for Suncor Energy, Inc., or any oilsands company, for that matter. The 31-year-old, who holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and master’s degree in biological sciences from the University of Windsor, was raised in Tecumseh, Ont. Her expectation was to conduct research on the Great Lakes for most of her life, but a summer working for Suncor changed her path, leading her to embrace an opportunity to effect change from inside industry.
“After I completed my bachelor’s degree, I had the option of taking a summer job doing Great Lakes research or doing oilsands reclamation and wetlands work,” Daly explains. “That was in the summer of 2004. I had never heard of the oilsands before that.”
That summer, she was involved in developing aquatic ecosystems using oilsands mine waste products, and found the work to be much more fulfilling than she had expected.
“I didn’t come to Fort McMurray [Alta.] for the money. I thought I could have a positive impact on reducing the environmental footprint of our operations,” Daly says. “In June of 2007, I was hired by Suncor as its wetland reclamation research coordinator.”
About 50 per cent of Suncor’s lease area was wetland before being disturbed by mining, most of it being fen wetlands featuring muskeg and trees such as black spruce.
“Most people thought it would be impossible to reproduce areas like that because it took thousands of years for them to develop,” says Daly. “No one has ever done this research before. But we’ve developed fen wetlands from scratch.”
The work is complex, since all the pieces need to be designed as if nature had done so, including the crucial intersection between the groundwater system and the wetlands, all along relying on a base of mining waste products.
There are six professionals in Daly’s group, including a social scientist, a wildlife biologist and a forester.
“We all come from different parts of Canada, but we all share a passion for the environment. We all see a lot of hope in the resilience of Mother Nature.”
The department works with experts from universities throughout North America, who Daly says have developed a respect for Suncor’s commitment to the environment. She admits she once had doubts about the company’s sincerity.
“I was a skeptic. When you’re in university you think you can’t work for industry because they’re the bad people. But my mind has definitely changed.”
Mark Berrett, an environmental compliance officer with Cenovus Energy Inc., which has launched an ambitious plan to ramp up in situ production to net rates north of 350,000 barrels per day by 2019, took a circuitous route to end up in the environmental field with an oil and gas company. Berrett first attended the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, receiving a two-year diploma in television production.
While the 27-year-old enjoyed the program, he wasn’t able to find a job in the field. That led to him finding work at a natural gas processing plant in southeastern Saskatchewan, where he worked for a year and a half. Berrett was hooked by the oil and gas business, and decided to go to Olds College, where he took a diploma in land reclamation.
“I liked working in the field, so I thought that would be a good move,” he says, adding that there is a family connection to the energy sector. “My dad is involved in joint ventures in the oil and gas industry.”
Berrett has worked for Cenovus and predecessor company Encana Corporation for the last four years, and is now assigned to the Christina Lake steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) project.
“[Christina Lake] was producing 5,000 barrels per day when I started, is now producing 18,500 barrels daily and is going to eventually be producing 200,000 barrels per day.”
Berrett, who lives in Medicine Hat, Alta., commutes to the plant site, where he lives in a camp and works four days a week. His daily job involves surface water management, emissions testing, tracking wildlife and monitoring waste streams.
“It’s meaningful work. We have a good group of people and we’re building a good foundation. We have a great opportunity to influence a lot of change.”
Berrett says that he has no moral qualms about working for Cenovus.
“We [the environmental team] are not seen as a liability. We’re a key part of the operation.”
Tony Jackson, group lead of environmental operations and assessment for Cenovus, shifted from the forestry sector to the oil and gas business. The 37-year-old, who grew up just south of Calgary in High River, Alta., was one of the first graduates of the then-new environmental conservation science program at the University of Alberta in 1997.
“They added the course to the traditional agricultural and forestry program,” Jackson explains, adding that there was a concentration on soil sciences and other studies that proved to be invaluable in his subsequent career.
His first job was with the environmental consulting division in the Edmonton office of EBA Engineering, Inc.
“My job was conducting reclamation assessments of oil and gas wells.”
About five years with EBA was followed by a job as a consultant responsible for overseeing the reclamation of about 150 wellsites at one time. Jackson joined Cenovus predecessor Encana in December 2003.
“Now I handle 600 to 700 [well] sites,” he says. “We have a group of about 10 people. Our role is to get those sites certified. We work with our regulatory staff, working on environmental impact assessments and regulatory approvals.”
No one should doubt that the regulatory regime in Alberta is thorough, Jackson says.
“You need to comply with about 800 different regulations. For Foster Creek and Christina Lake there are 43 pages of things we need to do every day.”
Jackson says he believes that Cenovus “walks the talk” when it comes to the environment. “Nobody is complaining about the money we spend on environmental monitoring because they know it has to be done.”
Amberly Dooley is still in her late 20s, but she has both strong academic and practical work experience in the environmental field in the oil and gas industry. Although a committed environmentalist, she has no qualms about what she does for a living at Devon Canada Corporation, where she works in thermal regulatory affairs with the company’s environment, health and safety team.
“The world needs the oil, so I’ve always said the key to ensuring environmental change is to enact change from the inside,” says Dooley, who has a bachelor’s degree in applied science in chemical engineering, with an environmental option from the University of British Columbia. She grew up in Cranbrook, B.C.
After graduation in 2005, Dooley traveled to Europe for the summer, then joined Imperial Oil Limited, working as an environmental adviser on its Cold Lake in situ oilsands project. She worked for Imperial until last summer, when she joined Devon, which is ramping up its in situ oil production at its wholly owned Jackfish projects and its 50 per cent–owned Kirby-Pike project (along with partner BP p.l.c.).
“Devon is a smaller company [than Imperial], and I was looking for an opportunity to get involved on the strategy side,” Dooley says, adding that she has been impressed with the company’s flexibility and its corporate culture. “Devon has always been a strong advocate of doing the right thing.”
She is particularly proud of Devon’s use of non-potable source water for SAGD steam generation.
“We were responsible for the first commercial application of that. It would certainly be cheaper to drill into shallower freshwater sources, but using that [brackish] water is the right thing.”
Dooley says that one of the biggest challenges in situ operators face is that, unlike with oilsands mines, wildlife continues to use the disturbed land during production.
“It’s just assumed that deer won’t go into a mine pit, but during our operations we’re expected to not cause harm to wildlife.”
Impact assessment is a crucial part of her work, done through computer modelling as well as frequent field sampling.
Chris Walsh, project coordinator for Devon’s Kirby-Pike project, has a forestry background, like many in the land reclamation sector in the oil and gas business.
“I grew up in Sheet Harbour, Nova Scotia, and my whole family was involved in forestry,” says Walsh, who moved to Alberta in 1985 after obtaining a forestry diploma in Nova Scotia, followed by a forest technology diploma at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.
After a career in forestry, Walsh, who is in his 40s, shifted to the oil and gas sector, first working for a Grande Prairie–based consulting firm.
He then established his own consulting firm, specializing in land management and reclamation. One of his key clients was Ulster Petroleum Ltd., which was eventually sold to Anderson Exploration Ltd., which, in turn was purchased by Devon in 2001.
Walsh continued to do consulting for Devon, until he joined the company as an employee last spring. He says an important aspect of the in situ operations he is involved with is the use of a new well placement technique designed to reduce the physical footprint.
“We are drilling one vertical and four slant wells from half-acre wellsites. This has never been done before with SAGD,” he says, adding that the technique will allow Devon to drill underneath some small lakes on the site.
Walsh grew up hunting and fishing and now does some trapping, and says his appreciation for the environment does not conflict with his work.
“The forestry industry has a good reputation for minimizing its impact on the environment, and I’m very comfortable working for an oil and gas company.”
As a senior manager responsible for the environmental performance of Norway-based Statoil’s Canadian operations, Michel Myhre-Nielsen feels an obligation to live up to the company’s reputation as a leader in environmental performance among global oil companies.
That reputation was put at risk when Statoil, which has been a leader in the development of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology and renewables such as wind power and geothermal energy, as well as in emissions trading, announced in 2007 that was entering the Canadian oilsands industry through the purchase of North American Oil Sands Corporation.
The global firm is now progressing in situ production at its Kai Kos Dehseh project, which commenced production in January and ultimately could produce more than 200,000 barrels per day. Those plans have led to a storm of opposition from environmental groups. Facing that challenge—literally from the ground up—was the job handed to Myhre-Nielsen.
“My previous work with the company was focused around climate change in general and the oilsands is more CO2 intensive, which is one of the reasons I came to Canada,” says the Norwegian-born Myhre-Nielsen.
Now manager of environment and climate within Statoil Canada’s health, safety and environment department, the 40-year-old, who has a master’s degree in science with an engineering specialty, began his career at the company working as a chemical engineer working on gas processing issues.
“I was involved with our renewable energy projects and in CO2 capture and storage,” he says. “I was engaged in looking at new ideas to see if they were interesting to us.”
Myhre-Nielsen, who moved to Canada in 2008, sees nothing inconsistent between his work in renewable energy and CCS and his current oilsands job.
“My environmental expertise is around the climate change area. Because we are in the fossil fuel business, CO2 is produced, so it’s important to be able to limit that production as much as possible.”
Ultimately, he says that the world needs fossil fuels, something too many environmental organizations fail to acknowledge.
“They have a different view of the future, and we can never agree on that. However, we need to show respect for their views.”
While he recognizes environmental organizations have a role to play, Myhre-Nielsen has chosen to reduce the environmental footprint of the energy industry from the inside.
“It’s better to be within the industry and to try to ensure it is moving in the right direction. There will always be a balancing act when we develop resources, whether they’re renewables or fossil fuels.”
Erin Davies, who grew up in Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., also works for Statoil as an environmental scientist, but she took a much different path than Myhre-Nielsen, although there’s also a Scandinavian connection—she graduated with a master’s in environmental science from Lund University in Sweden. That was in 2005, after the 31-year-old had completed a bachelor’s in science and chemical engineering at the University of Alberta.
Davies, a professional environmental engineer, recently joined Myhre-Nielsen’s environment and climate team after previously working in regulatory affairs with Statoil.
She worked with an environmental consulting firm before joining Statoil, and has developed an understanding of the environmental impact of the firm’s oilsands projects that she thinks qualifies her to argue that the company walks the talk about its concern for the environment.
“I was a member of a team of five to eight people that prepared the Environmental Impact Assessment [EIA] for the projects. It was unprecedented for a company to do the EIA for a demonstration-size and commercial facility [together]. Our approval is for right up to 80,000 barrels daily.”
In her new job with the company, that experience will be invaluable, since she will play a key role in environmental monitoring and answering questions from government regulators around such areas as sulphur dioxide emissions, surface water issues and land disturbance.
Davies is convinced it is important for people with a commitment to the environment to work in the oil business.
“When I graduated in Sweden, I never thought I’d be working in the oil and gas sector, but I changed my opinion. One thing that changed my mind is that Statoil has a good reputation. Also, Norway has a good reputation as a country that cares about the environment.”
Bill Arling, manager of corporate environment for Calgary-based Nexen Inc., needs to be kept abreast of growing government and public concerns about the energy industry’s impact on the environment. Like other environmental scientists working inside industry, he’d rather be on the inside than outside looking in.
“You can work from the outside in the advocacy role or in academia, or you can work in the practical world, which is in industry, trying to find practical solutions,” says Arling, 44, who graduated from the University of Calgary in 1996 with a bachelor’s of science degree, with a specialty in industrial ecology.
He joined Nexen—operator of the Long Lake in situ oilsands project—in 2004, after previously working for a utility. In his current role, Arling works with several international energy industry bodies, helping to provide policy guidance and support to Nexen divisions across the world when they confront environmental issues.
He communicates frequently with groups such as the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers and the International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Association.
When there is an environmental incident such as a hydrocarbon or water spill, Arling swings into action, helping to find contractors that can deal with the problem, as well as helping local employees deal with regulators and taking other actions.
He encourages young, bright people to consider going into the field of environmental science.
“The world is challenged with a number of environmental issues and a lot of attention is being given to industrial activities worldwide, so there are many opportunities in the area.”