As global temperatures climb, the impact of wildfires on oilsands operations will climb as well
This article appears in the August issue of Oilweek; photo from Calgary Herald
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.
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.