Tuesday, August 18, 2015

On Fire

As global temperatures climb, the impact of wild fires on oil sands operations will climb as well.

This article appears in the August issue of Oilweek.

By Peter McKenzie-Brown

As fire roared through the boreal forest toward Cenovus’s Foster Creek last May, the company took the precaution of evacuating 1,800 employees from the site, according to company spokesman Reg Curren.

“The big challenge was that it was threatening to cut off the road in and out of the facility,” he said. “We couldn’t take the chance of having people stranded, and provincial forest fire officials asked us to get ready for a potential evacuation.” The company decided to evacuate. Most people left in the large buses already on-site to transport workers, while those with personal vehicles drove to safety.

“We thought we might be able to continue to operate, with reduced staff, so about 140 people stayed behind to continue operating the plant,” he said. “When it became clear that we couldn’t do that, we brought helicopters into play. Over a period of a few hours, we were able to get the last people off-site.” The facility was down 11 full days, and “we returned to full operations on June 11.” Operations quickly returned to normal.

Wildfires: The company was lucky. So was Canadian Natural Resources, which needed to close down its Foster Creek and Kirby South operations at the same time. The reality, however, is that the number and extent of the forest fires Alberta’s boreal forest are increasing. As far as oil sands operations are concerned, the risk of forest fire disruptions is on the rise.

That is the view of Mike Flannigan, who is director of the University of Alberta’s Western Partnership for Wildland Fire Science. Global warming and climate change are real, he says, and they are affecting the way the oil sands business operates.

Warming up to the topic of climate change, he says it is no coincidence that Earth’s hottest ten years have all taken place this century. Indeed, the most recent meteorological winter – from the beginning of last December to February 28th – was the warmest Earth has seen since record keeping began, more than 135 years ago. Another piece of evidence: Alberta’s official fire season now starts March 1 – a full month earlier than only five or 10 years ago.

This spring the province’s fires were less destructive than in some years past, and they had a curiously positive impact on the bottom line of oil sands producers as a whole. By closing access to oil sands facilities, they reduced supplies to the booming downstream sector, accelerating increases in Western Canada Select oil prices after nearly a year of declines. From April to the middle of June, the price differential between WCS and West Texas Intermediate stood at about $7.50 per barrel despite high oil inventories in the US. That was the narrowest differential in more than five years.

These bottom-line impacts reflected reduced production representing represented more than 8 per cent of the province’s total oil output. There were 917 fires, compared to the average over the last five years of 690. At this writing, some 90,000 hectares have burned this year, compared to the average 30,000 hectares per full year between 2009 and 2014.

Northern Alberta’s boreal forest surrounds most oil sands projects, which are designed to resist the ravages of fire. Careful planning notwithstanding, fire does disrupt operations. As events this year demonstrate, they can lead to evacuations from field camps – sometimes by helicopter, when fire makes rural roads impassable. Smoke can close airports, complicating helicopter rescue. In addition, of course, people with respiratory ailments can suffer from the smoke itself.

In the past, according to Flannigan, “we often talked about the wildland/urban interface. People enjoy living in the country, and that is fraught with risk if you have a wildfire.”

For rural communities and those who want to live on properties in the woods, big fires can lead to the destruction of property. In 2011, for example, a bush fire torched the Town of Slave Lake, with 40% of its structures going up in smoke. During that time there was “a huge fire, 600,000 hectares—it was a huge fire –” near Fort McMurray, several hundred kilometres away. Those fires were so severe that they had a measurable impact on Canada’s GDP. According to a StatsCan report, oil and gas production decreased 3.6% in the second quarter of that year – the biggest single contributor to a quarterly decline in the country’s output. “Wildfires in Northern Alberta as well as maintenance shutdowns reduced petroleum production,” wrote the federal agency. “Extraction of natural gas also decreased.”

Because of industrial development in norther forests, he says, “we have started using a new expression: wildland/industrial interface. Today there is so much industrial activity in the boreal forest that fires lead to all sorts of impacts and consequences.”

What Fire Needs: Unlike rural communities, the boreal forest “survives and thrives with regular fires,” Flannigan says. While he acknowledges year-to-year variability in forest burns across Canada, “roughly speaking, that area has doubled since the 1970s.”

For lift-off, forest fires need fuel, ignition and weather. Fuel is “the stuff that burns, like pine needles and decomposing organic matter,” Flannigan says. “How much do you have, how dry is it? What type of fuel is it?” Rivers and wetlands can block fires, so “what’s the continuity” of the fuel? The second factor is ignition – mostly lightning, but also such human activity as campfires. Weather is the third. “You need all three for a wildfire to burn,” he says. “You need fuel, you need ignition and you need hot, dry, windy weather.”

Besides an earlier start to the fire season, Flannigan’s explanation of the impact of global warming includes two other main factors. One is that warmer weather leads to more combustion from lightning. Also, rather counterintuitively, “the warmer it gets the more moisture you have in the air. That’s because the increased heat leads to more evaporation and therefore drier fuels.

Fire management philosophy is simple: “You hit it hard and you hit it fast. Once a fire gets the size of a football field (about one hectare) you have a real problem.” Yet despite modern, efficient fire management organizations across Canada and larger areas covered by fire-fighting personnel and equipment, annual burn areas are growing, with most of the impact coming from 3% of the forest fires.

For natural fire control, he says, “for every degree of atmospheric warming, we need a 10-15% increase in precipitation to compensate.” Yet projections created by atmospheric scientists “which you have to take with a great deal of salt” suggest that, in the future, fuels will be much drier. “This will make it easier for fires to spread. So what we now have is a longer fire season, more fires and drier fuel.”

What Geoscience Says: Of course, to get a contrary opinion the person to talk to is a geoscientist, and Colin Yeo does not entirely disappoint.

“Geologists have always noted that climate is subject to change, like the mini-ice ages before the Industrial Revolution” he says. Solar activity has caused warming and cooling trends, and so have astrophysical cycles. “Earth tilts and goes through long periods of climate change over long periods of time.” The best known are the Milankovitch cycles. These three cosmic progressions give Earth a dramatically eccentric orbit, although over tens of thousands of years. 

“Earth was getting warmer and colder even when there was little carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” Yeo says, then gets to the heart of the matter. The geological community does agree – “because it’s measurable” – that there is an increased carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere, he says. “We also note that there has been an increase in global temperatures over recent years, although there was a pause for about ten years until about 1998.”

While the geological community recognizes that many factors influence climate, “we do not know which driver is dominant, and many geoscientists are ill-equipped to render a meaningful opinion because atmosphere science is so complex,” he says. “You need geophysics to truly understand this.”
Then he begins talking about a recent survey of Canadian earth scientists.

How is the profession responding to a changing climate? For one, geology departments are shifting their primary focus from the science of exploration and extraction of resources to environmental science and environmental remediation. Most geoscientists believe climate change, over the last few decades, has been driven by a combination of natural and anthropogenic processes. Furthermore, public understanding and media representations of climate change are not based on good scientific knowledge, and politicians worry more about public opinion than science.

By now, he is more willing to talk about climate change as a problem that could, indeed, contribute to more and larger wildfires in Alberta’s North. He begins talking about methane hydrate –a crystalline solid that consists of a methane molecule surrounded by a cage of interlocking water molecules. Stable on the seafloor at water depths below 500 metre, this substance also exists in large quantities in the permafrost of Northern Canada. It is the largest natural gas resource on Earth.

While he acknowledges its potential as a source of energy, Yeo says gas hydrates themselves are potentially a serious problem. “If the planet’s temperature goes up enough and subsea hydrates are released as methane into the atmosphere that is going to cause a lot of grief.” The reason is that methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Back to the Future: So, is the outlook bleak, with nothing but worry ahead? “There will be a lot of spatial and temporal variability in terms of climate change, Flannigan says. “Just because the climate is getting warmer does not mean there won’t continue to be extreme events. In some places there will continue to be outbreaks of extreme cold and strange weather” – like last winter’s mountains of snow in the Maritimes.

However, he says, “You have to look at climate over larger areas and over the longer term. There will be winners and losers.” The losers will be, in particular, those parts of the world where global warming is turning farmland into desert and creating droughts. The resulting poverty and other social issues often complicated by war. According to the United Nations, the number of people living as refugees from war or persecution now stands at 51.2 million – the highest level since World War Two.

By contrast, says Flannigan, Canada will be a winner. “Farming in more northerly areas is now possible, since our growing seasons are getting longer” and Canada has the world’s largest fresh water resources, for irrigation.

As an afterthought, almost, Flannigan says “our fuel bills are going down.” Those with central air conditioning, of course, will find their utility bills going up.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Awash with Imagination

How imagination, cooperation and grant-matching can deliver clean water to the poorest of India’s poor

By Peter McKenzie-Brown

Anil Jain calls it the “WASH” project, with the acronym standing for “water and sanitation hygiene.” Whatever you call it, this initiative illustrates the power Rotarians can harness when clubs work together.

Anil is president of The Rotary Club of Calgary Centennial, which provided leadership for WASH, which now has participation from three other Alberta clubs – Calgary, Calgary Heritage Park, and the Rotary Club of Olds – and also the Rotary Club of Phoenix, Arizona. Those clubs and Alberta’s Community Initiatives Program are donating about $47,500 to the WASH project, but that is just the beginning. Even though the Canadian dollar has recently declined in value, in the Rotary way of doing things donations on both sides of the border are deemed to be contributions in US funds.

Now comes the magic of matching grants. Beginning in the upcoming Rotary year, our District can provide enhanced District Development Grants. In this case, they will amount to $70,000. The Rotary Foundation will match those funds according to one formula, and then use another to provide further matching grant. The grand total? $177,500. Using his favourite word, Jain describes this outcome as “wonderful.”

Working with a host Rotary club in India, these sums will make clean drinking water and basic sanitation facilities available to villagers in Sarurpur, a poor village of 50,000+ near New Delhi. The community has about 8,000 households, more than 4,000 of which have no sanitation facilities. Open defecation is a serious issue both in terms of health and human dignity. There is no central facility to supply clean drinking water. Some households have hand pumps and use shallow, untreated groundwater. Other households use contaminated piped water.

The WASH project will establish two to three public sanitation facilities, each of which will have eight to 10 toilets. Facilities will be equipped with untreated water – obtained through submersible pumps – stored in tanks.

To provide drinking water, the project will train and employ local workers to build about 1,000 biosand filters. This proved technology originated with the Calgary-based Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology (CAWST).

“To put this water and sanitation project in context, it is worth remembering some basic differences between developed and developing countries,” said Anil Jain. “In developed countries, clean drinking water arrives from large, complex centralized facilities through networks of underground pipelines to homes, businesses and public facilities. Sanitation facilities are much the same, taking sewage from place of origin to centralized treatment facilities.”

Because these facilities require substantial financial resources, he said, they have “high maintenance and operational costs, and require technical and management skills for proper operation and maintenance. This approach is not the solution for clean water issues in rural India.” By contrast, the WASH project aims to address basic water and sanitation issues around Sarurpur. “The proponents have done a great deal of research to determine the best technologies and approaches for this project,” he said. However, he did acknowledge that “plan changes may be necessary once implementation begins.”

Jain recently visited the community. Locals have given the project “enthusiastic support,” he said. “The headman is designating land sites to build public sanitation facilities on.” Once the project is completed, it will be managed by staff from the Maya Devi hospital in the village.

That hospital originated only three years ago, after it received preliminary funding from the Rotary clubs of Calgary Centennial and RC Calgary. Now operated by Calgary-based CHILD Foundation and MOTHER Foundation in India, the hospital has become a rural centre of excellence. It provides quality health care and health education to women and children in Sarurpur. “In many ways,” Jain said, “the hospital has already transformed the community.”

The largest single project ever undertaken by the Rotary Club of Calgary Centennial, Anil Jain’s WASH project is a great example of how “wonderful” things can happen when Rotary clubs collaborate.