Air Water Land: June 2011
Getting recognized for land stewardship
Imperial Oil Cold Lake becomes the first upstream oil and gas site in Canada certified by the Wildlife Habitat Council
Generations of lynxes, moose, deer, foxes and bears have come to take Imperial Oil Limited’s in situ oilsands installation at Cold Lake, Alta., for granted.
Four production plants and four field facilities dot the lease. Production and steam pipeline pairs wind through the forest carrying steam to, and heavy oil from, its thermal operation, which is one of only two plants of its kind to have been in operations since the 1980s—more than one billion barrels have been produced.
Sketched into the transition zone from aspen parkland to boreal mixed-wood forest, the Cold Lake project is a 780-square-kilometre lease that is home to many species of wildlife that appear accustomed to the energy infrastructure.
“They’re definitely habituated to the [built] landscape,” says environmental adviser Courtney Blackmore, a biologist who came on board almost two years ago as wildlife lead on Imperial’s habitat protection programs. The company also has environmental advisers on the conservation and reclamation side managing wildlife effectiveness programs. “People have seen foxes and coyotes curled up on the pipeline for a snooze because it’s warm.”
Adds Keith Chiasson, Imperial’s operations manager for Cold Lake, “I saw a moose today nosing around our site. We are steward to a pretty large amount of wildlife habitat.”
Imperial Cold Lake has made headlines by becoming the first upstream oil and gas site in Canada ever to win Wildlife at Work certification from the Wildlife Habitat Council (WHC).
Established in 1988, the WHC is an international non-profit organization focused on restoring and enhancing wildlife habitat, protecting biodiversity and educating communities. It works with corporations to translate their sustainability goals into tangible actions.
Collaboration with WHC begins with a site visit. “Two PhD biologists do a report on how to enhance your site,” explains Blackmore. “You choose a couple of [priorities], then apply and work on certification. With our sheer land mass, pine and spruce trees, and beautiful wetlands, they were in awe that we had this much space and were doing positive things with it.”
ExxonMobil Corp., 70 per cent owner of Imperial Oil, has been a member of the WHC since the organization’s inception.
While joining the WHC may have been a corporate decision made by Imperial’s parent company, the Canadian branch of the global supermajor credits its people on the ground for its operational success, for years enthusiastically monitoring wildlife and taking care of the habitat.
The workforce, currently nearly 400 employees plus 1,000 contractors, amounts to about 10 per cent of the population of the City of Cold Lake, a half-hour drive from the field. Three-quarters of the employees have grown up in the area, where outdoor recreation is a big part of life.
“People have an innate interest in wildlife,” Blackmore says. “In the lunchroom, people are always talking about what moose or lynx they saw in the morning. We have people with tracking experience, and aboriginal people who have lived on the land their entire lives.”
From the various plants and field units, Blackmore has recruited 12 departmental representatives—including two Imperial PhD biologists—to be her wildlife team. They champion wildlife programs to their colleagues and solicit ideas about new ways to steward the land.
Having PhD biologists on the team is, for Blackmore, “an amazing opportunity,” she says, because she learns more from them in the field than she would learn if she went back into a classroom for her master’s degree. “This is pretty much as good as it gets. To get on [with Imperial] and be able to work with wildlife, developing programs, has just been fabulous.”
The volunteers on the wildlife team harness the lunchroom discussion of sightings and turn it into data to help Blackmore track activity on the lease.
“People talking about wildlife has always existed; this [Wildlife at Work certification] just formalizes the discussion,” she says.
Collaborating with the WHC provides a structure for management, employees and community members to create, conserve and restore wildlife habitats on corporate lands. The projects undertaken are all voluntary efforts that exceed regulatory requirements.
To be eligible for certification, a company must have been carrying out its programs for at least a year and must have a fully documented management plan that lists goals, objectives and ways of achieving them.
In 2010, the Cold Lake operation was one of 281 sites recognized for creating a Wildlife at Work program, for a total of 640 scattered across 10 countries. Certification provides third-party credibility and an objective evaluation of projects.
At Cold Lake, Imperial has a whole portfolio of wildlife and habitat programs in place, starting with a database of observations made by workers, who are in their sixth year of filling out cards and taking digital photos whenever they see any wildlife.
Besides serving as a species inventory, the database allows Blackmore to track the interactions of wildlife with company facilities. Workers’ photos are supplemented by pictures from five strategically placed motion-detection wildlife cameras that were installed last July.
From these, she can estimate the number of successful versus non-successful interactions with facilities. “Successful” means the animal crosses under a pipe or bounds over it rather than travelling parallel to it.
Imperial ensures there’s a crossing available at least every 500 metres by routing the pipe through the landscape so it’s either on the ground, where animals can jump over it, or at least 1.8 metres above a dip so they can pass under it.
This summer, the company is buying 30 more 24-hour wildlife cameras to give a much more comprehensive record of successful versus non-successful interactions with the facilities.
To date, most of the pictures from the motion-detection cameras have been “just a lot of calm grazing around and under the pipeline,” Blackmore says. She makes the rounds of the cameras to download them every six weeks.
The second program in the wildlife habitat portfolio is a waterfowl survey that’s been carried out since 1998. Twice a season, a biologist and a summer student tour the wetlands and count species and populations.
The waterfowl program is growing because after years of sharing knowledge with Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC), Imperial has entered into a formal long-term partnership with DUC to complete a wetland inventory of the area and collaborate on developing best management practices for wetland habitat.
DUC is a national non-profit organization that works to conserve wetlands and habitat for North America’s waterfowl, other wildlife and people. It calls Alberta the key “duck factory” in North America with its eight million waterfowl and 20 million shorebirds using its wetlands and surrounding habitat to raise their young.
In 2000, Imperial’s Cold Lake workers started enhancing wetland habitat on the lease with bird and bat nesting boxes, osprey nesting platforms and nesting tubes for certain types of birds.
This summer, they’ll add 50 new bird boxes, 10 bat boxes and 20 waterfowl nesting boxes to the 150 currently in place. The boxes are purchased ready to assemble through the Alberta Conservation Association, out of Red Deer, Alta.
An exciting next step for Imperial Oil is the opportunities presented by its Kearl oilsands mining operation, which is currently under construction about 70 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, Alta. The company is planning on having a WHC team go up to see what the possibilities there might be. Phase 1 of Kearl is targeted to start up in late 2012.