Posted in: News – Sustainability | Environmental

Jim Ellis, CEO of the Alberta Energy Regulator, says his goal is to create a world-class agency.

New CEO aims to build confidence in energy regulator

Jim Ellis had barely settled into his new Calgary office when two major crises in the oilpatch dropped onto his desk.

In spring 2013, sticky bitumen was seeping into the forest near Cold Lake, while up in Peace River farmers were growing increasingly unhappy about air pollution problems.

Ellis, just appointed CEO of the brand new Alberta Energy Regulator, knew his responses to these problems would help – or hinder – the job of establishing credibility as chief enforcer in the oilpatch.

From its outset in 2013, the new regulator had its share of skepticics. Set up at the request of oil companies, funded solely by them with a goal of faster approvals for pipelines and mines – it looked like industry’s friend.

When industry insider Gerry Protti was appointed as chairman of the board, critics howled.

In Peace River, Ellis opted for bold, public action, ordering a hearing into landowners’ grievances over pollution – the first one ever in Alberta.

Ellis is pleased with the outcome. So are the landowners who stood up to big oil and found the new regulator backed their case.

The AER panel concluded the oil company, Calgary-based Baytex, must install pollution-control equipment and capture highly smelly emissions that farmers said were making them sick.

“We accepted all those recommendations and announced a work plan to the public,” said Ellis, a former deputy minister in energy and environment departments. This was a major change from the past.

“The hearing raised all kinds of issues; it was an open, transparent process and a very successful model for us,” says Ellis, adding he’d use the hearing again to resolve contentious issues.

But the bitumen leaks on the CNRL Primrose lease are taking much longer. A final report on the causes won’t be ready until spring 2015, two years after bitumen was found flowing into the forest.

The regulator costs about $245 million to run, mostly salaries for 1,200 employees.

Ellis dismissed the suggestion that the oil industry has influence because it pays the bills.

There’s an important layer between the regulator and oil companies – government.

“We go to government and tell them what we need to have and government approves the amount we want to collect,” he said.

Ellis is also proud of the fact he’s saved industry about $125 million with more efficient approval processes.

Transparency is important to gain public trust, especially as the regulator enforces environmental laws (a job that used be done by the environment department).

For public benefit, the agency set up a website called “incident tracker,” which lists pipeline spills, leaking wells or faulty well bores, although listings are not always timely – at times, weeks after incidents occur.

The goal, he says, is to create a world-class regulator. To that end, he set himself a rather direct challenge.

Ellis hired professors from University of Pennsylvania to design the perfect energy regulator and then see how closely the Alberta agency resembles that model.

“It’s called a best-in-class study” and it will be done next summer.

“We’ll see where we sit.”

But meanwhile, Albertans have other ways to measure the effectiveness of the new regulator.

On the environmental side, stubborn problems remain and new polices are still in the works. Tailings ponds are still growing, caribou herds are disappearing, greenhouse gases are rising, air pollution is getting worse in the northeast and mines are expanding with very little reclamation of the land.

A brand new policy on air pollution kicked in during 2014, but action was limited.

The Lower Athabasca Regional Plan calls for specific action when air pollution hits certain “trigger” levels.

The first air pollution report showed Level 2 and 3 pollution (on a scale of four) for sulphur dioxide emissions and Level 2 for nitrogen dioxide rises at some of the dozen monitoring sites in the northeast.

The regulator called for more investigation, not action to reduce the levels.

“The LARP is where the rubber hits the road,” Ellis said.

But government is ultimately the responsible agency, he added.

Can a regulator be world class without strong policies to enforce?

Ellis says policy development is mostly the responsibility of government, though the regulator has some input.

“So we are working with government and the new policy management office (in the energy department) to get those policies settled,” said Ellis.

For instance, new rules aimed at reducing toxic tailings lakes should be ready in 2015, says Ellis. The question how fast will they go into action?

The big test will come later – if a new oilsands project will push air pollution over the legal limit, will the regulator say ‘no’?

“We don’t have the authority to go over those limits,” Ellis stressed.

The regulator has built a strong international reputation with countries like Mexico now coming to Alberta for advice, says Ellis.

But the most important job is back at home.

“To be an open, trusted regulator, that’s very important to us,” says Ellis.

“Albertans need to look with confidence at the regulator, that we are doing the right thing.”

A Ford Fusion courtesy of Koch Ford Lincoln gets a charge from Southgate’s first electric car charging station.

Electric car owners get a charge at Edmonton shopping centre

The two chargers, unveiled Dec. 19 on the south parkade second level, will be free and allow shoppers to keep their car’s battery full while they shop.

“I think the primary driver is that it’s the right thing to do, from both an environmental perspective as well as a customer-service perspective,” said Julia Dow, property manager at Southgate.

Not 20 minutes after the announcement was made and representatives left the stations, a shopper pulled up in a Tesla P85 to charge his car.

“This is the first time I’ve charged my car outside my house,” said Charlie Fatale, 41, who found the charger using an app. He said it attracted him to Southgate to do his shopping.

Southgate’s chargers will add to Alberta’s estimated 108 public charging stations, according to David Dodge, producer and host of Green Energy Futures. “I think it’s a great start,” he said. “But let’s face it, we’re in the early stages.”

As for electric cars, Dodge cited sales figures as of January 2014 that put Alberta in fourth place with 176, behind Quebec, Ontario, and B.C. It’s not a close race though: B.C. has 969, Ontario has 2,016 and Quebec boasts 2,580.

“Alberta does very little for this kind of thing,” said Dodge. “This is such early-stage technology that it’s the subsidy programs in these provinces that have led this market.”

The total price tag for Southgate’s station was $15,000. Dow said that in B.C. it’s more like $5,000 for the same station due to the subsidies.

It’s a “chicken-and-egg thing” said Dodge. “You want to have the charging stations before you buy the car but people won’t put the charging stations in until you buy the car. That’s why this market kind of needs support in the beginning.”

Southgate’s stations came about through the start of a long-term partnership with Koch Ford Lincoln. Gary Hill, general sales manager, demonstrated the first use of the station and said the partnership is a “natural progression,” since Koch is moving to become the first Edmonton electric car dealer as well.

“I don’t think there’s any question that electric cars are going to play a bigger role in the future,” said Dodge.

Shauna Rae skis with her son Vaughn Christian, 4, on Tuesday. Rae is a co-founder of the Ski2LRT initiative, which hopes a new locked ski rack at Century Park LRT will inspire the local community to see ski-trail possibilities all around.

Skiing to work becomes an option for south-side residents

The custom welding is done. They’re just waiting for a few more pieces in the mail and the rack will be available to let southsiders ski on their commute or go shopping one stop north at Southgate Centre.

It means freedom, regular exercise and a chance to avoid the mad scramble to get a parking stall at Century Park before it fills up at 7:05 each weekday morning, said co-founder Michelle Jehn, a provincial employee who bikes to the LRT twice a week during the summer.

“All of a sudden winter comes and I have to put the bike away. This is great. This is a great idea,” said Jehn. The one-year old informal crew organized through social media designed the rack themselves and built it with a $1,000-grant from the area community leagues.

The ski rack is just one small part of the plan. Armed with free Google software and their own skis, the group of about a dozen volunteers is setting and mapping tracks along roads and under power lines throughout the nearby neighbourhoods.

Eventually, they’d like volunteers to update the map with trail conditions after each snowfall.

Link: Click the map to see the interactive Google map.

They’re creating a whole network of simple trails right out their backdoors in neighbourhoods such as Aspen Gardens, Blue Quill, Skyrattler and Bearspaw.

And these aren’t spandex-clad, Birkie-skiing super-athletes, said Don Darnell, who does ski the Birkie, but doesn’t aim to win. This group is just people that love the idea of getting outside, celebrating the snow, and avoiding the car once in a while. “I find that inspiring,” he said after going for BrewSki – beer, laughter and commraderie with a line of skis outside Brewsters Century Park.

Darnell has been setting his own trail for the past four years. It’s a loop about one kilometre long in Aspen Gardens that he affectionately calls the Aspenbeiner, a play on Edmonton’s famous ski race.

He goes out religiously after every snowfall. “Once you get a nut doing something, we just keep going, like a dog with a bone,” he said, laughing.

Routes like Darnell’s are the secret to make this work, said Shauna Rae, who founded the group with Jehn. It was a mystery resident who sets a similar track along 34th Avenue that first inspired her to pick up cross-country skis five years ago.

Now she skis to coffee shops and just pops out to get a little exercise after her kids are in bed. “There are loops all over the city that people don’t know about.”

The suns sets behind a wind farm near Fort MacLeod, Alberta. May 13, 2010.

Alberta expected to unveil updated climate change strategy by month’s end

By the end of this month, the province is expected to unveil an updated climate change strategy. It has hinted at introducing an alternative and renewable energy framework, but hasn’t given away many details prior to its release.

“Next year, natural gas will pass coal as the single-largest generation source for electricity,” Environment Minister Kyle Fawcett said in an interview before leaving to Lima, Peru, for last week’s international talks on the next global climate accord.

“We have seen significant progress on things like wind and we do have some examples around biofuels that have played a significant role. So we do have some successes there.

“We are evaluating that and reviewing that and seeing whether there is a potential for greater opportunity in those areas as they pertain or fit into the larger strategy.”

The province originally talked about taking action on renewables in its 2008 climate change plan, where it said it would “further remove barriers and consider incentives for expanding the use of renewables and alternative energy sources.”

Earlier this year, a report by the Pembina Institute and Clean Energy Canada noted that Alberta has made some progress in diversifying its electricity system and cutting energy waste by doubling its wind power. It added, however, that the province still has no utility-scale solar generation and the grid remains reliant on fossil fuels.

Ben Thibault, director of the electricity program with the Pembina Institute, said he’d like the province’s climate change strategy to include a renewable energy framework.

Such a move was first proposed in 2007 by a group called the Clean Air Strategic Alliance, made up of representatives from government, industry and the non-profit sector.

“I’ve been watching the government go through fits and starts with actually putting this framework together,” said Thibault, noting the province needs to move forward with an actual plan with timelines for developing the framework.

Ben Thibault, director of the electricity program with the Pembina Institute, stands in front of one of SAIT’s solar-powered green building projects. He’d like to see the province release a renewable energy framework as part of its climate change strategy.

Thibault said all analysis shows that Alberta will continue to rely on fossil energy for electricity generation.

“We are gradually and rather slowly reducing our reliance on coal, but that is largely going to be replaced with reliance on natural gas,” he said. “So, 20 years out, we’ll still be reliant for well over 80 per cent of our electricity … from fossil energy sources, almost two-thirds of our grid electricity will come from natural gas.

“That’s quite a concern,” added Thibault.

The issue, he said, is the province will be reliant on a fuel source that has a history of volatile pricing. It also doesn’t increase any of the province’s multiple renewable energy sources, he said.

Moving toward more renewable energy has the support of 79 per cent of Albertans who, when polled by Nanos Research on behalf of the Canadian Wind Energy Association in July, agreed the province hasn’t done enough to support it.

Tim Weis, policy director for the Canadian Wind Energy Association, said they would like to see the provincial strategy recognize the opportunity and the value of renewable energy.

“Wind is one of the lowest-cost technologies, environmental attributes aside … and it can deliver emissions reductions,” he said. “So we’re really well-positioned to deliver on the low cost and emissions reductions, but the current market works against renewables.”

Weis said the projects are capital intensive, so they have high upfront costs.

It’s something that BluEarth Renewables has experienced first-hand.

“To be able to finance projects, you need to have access to long-term contracts,” said Marlo Raynolds, vice-president of market development with the company, which has a couple of wind power projects in the works in Alberta.

The lack of certainty, however, is scarring off investors, he said.

Raynolds, who’s running for federal politics as a Liberal in the next election, said it’s time for Alberta to play its role.

Without a renewable energy framework, Thibault said there will still be barriers to clean energy development – despite the fact Alberta has some of the country’s most reliable renewable energy resources with solar, wind, geothermal, biomass and hydro capacity.

“Nothing is a silver bullet … but a serious climate action plan from Alberta has to include taking advantage of the huge opportunities for reductions that we have from the electricity sector,” he said, suggesting it should also include setting targets for renewables.

Allison MacLean, of Edmonton’s Carbon Boutique, demonstrates the simplicity of the Nature Mill, a composting machine designed to be used indoors. A pull-out tray on the bottom holds the composted soil.

Living Small: Composting in a condo … really?

When Allison MacLean looked at the tall condo towers surrounding the store she was about to launch in downtown Edmonton in 2009, she thought about how she could make them a little greener.

So when the owner of Carbon Environmental Boutique opened on 104th Street she also started selling the Nature Mill composter, which is designed for indoor use.

“We were surrounded by these big towers of residential houses. And we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could get everyone in downtown Edmonton composting?’ ” said MacLean, who has since moved the store to the city’s High Street district, on 102nd Avenue, west of 124th Street.

The idea of composting in a condo might seem impossible – there’s no way neighbours or the condo board would put up with the smell, the bugs, and the sight of a compost bin on a balcony or on limited common property, right?

But products such as the Nature Mill and some composting education can help would-be composters tackle those obstacles head-on, say experts.

MacLean thinks there is heightened awareness about how people living in small spaces can compost without a backyard. The Nature Mill, which retails for about $450, is essentially odourless and small enough to fit into any apartment.

“There are no worms or mess. It’s easy,” MacLean said. “It just needs some dirt from outdoors. You put your organic waste in the top – egg shells, banana peels, even meat – it drops it to a lower compartment. In the middle, it has a turning arm that grinds down the food and it has a bit of heat. It turns it into a fine mulch.”

Still, the store sells most of its Nature Mill composters online, to homes across the country. MacLean thinks that’s because those consumers are specifically looking for a good composting solution, while people walking into the store may just be browsing its variety of products.

For those condo dwellers who do indeed want to get their hands into composting, the city encourages them to learn about how to manage a compost bin so it can be kept on a balcony or in a unit.

People can use a mechanical composter such as the Nature Mill (which has an automatic arm that turns every few hours; users simply need to chop up things like banana peels and corns husks, which could get caught on the turning arm), or a Bokashi system where microorganisms are attached to dried bran or sawdust to break down organic waste in a way that controls odour. (Each day you add some of the system’s culture mix to cover each new layer of scraps.)

You could even use a worm composting system.

“(Worms) are not considered livestock or even pests. The city encourages composting in as many ways as you can think of,” said Mark Stumpf-Allen, the City of Edmonton’s compost programs co-ordinator. “As long as the system is properly managed. A properly managed compost bin does not attract wasps and does not give off foul odours.”

Stumpf-Allen explained that a good compost bin has the right mix of “greens,” meaning fresh waste, and “browns,” meaning dried plant products. The greens need bacteria and oxygen to prevent smelly compounds from developing. The browns are carbon-rich, and the carbon acts as a filter for odours.

The city offers composting workshops that can get people started on a compost project and show them more techniques to manage their bin.

Stumpf-Allen often talks to groups in condominium buildings who want to start composting.

“I hear mostly from people who want to do something with a group, their neighbours. But that can be challenging because you want to get the majority of neighbours on board,” he said. “It can be a long haul but there are some buildings that have done it and some that have gone on to create community gardens or floral beds.”

Many condo buildings have bylaws restricting what can be placed on a balcony. But if a compost bin is properly managed, no one will know it stores compost, Stumpf-Allen said.

For 10 years, while living in a west-Edmonton condo, one avid composter used a large Rubbermaid container with holes cut into the lid to compost her organic waste, which she layered with dirt. The bylaws at her condo didn’t specifically forbid composting, but the woman was worried her compost contravened rules about storing items on her balcony (hence her reluctance to be named.) But by paying close attention to the mixture of dirt and waste, the smell was never an issue, she said.

BREAK IT DOWN

For more information about composting in Edmonton visit Edmonton.ca/compost. There are various programs to help you get started, such as the Compost School at the John Janzen Nature Centre. A compost coach is available during weekends and holidays in summer to answer questions and show you on-site compost projects.

_News Generic

Alberta to talk about ‘consistent’ carbon price at climate change conference

“We would like to work with the rest of Canada – and by extension the rest of North America – on trying to establish the consistent, fair price on carbon,” Kyle Fawcett told The Canadian Press in an interview before he headed to Lima for the UN-sponsored conference.

“I know that’s not going to be an easy thing, but it’s something we want to be leaders in, and that will take engaging some of the other jurisdictions in this country to begin with.”

Fawcett said any agreement would have to be applied equally across borders and across economies, despite the inevitable attempts to include exemptions and special breaks for favoured industries.

Fawcett acknowledged that would put pressure on Alberta’s current carbon tax, which applies only to major emitters and only on greenhouse gas emissions above a government-mandated level. Most carbon tax models, such as British Columbia’s, apply much more broadly.

As well, Alberta’s $15-dollar-a-tonne price is considered too low to achieve actual reductions in emissions. Fawcett said the government understands that to get a consistent price across jurisdictions, it may have to be higher.

“We’re well aware of that and that’s part of ongoing discussions,” he said.

“There hasn’t been any decisions (about a higher price). I’m not willing to comment on whether there will be increased costs or no increased costs until we’ve made those final decisions.”

Some of those decisions will be reflected in the province’s new environment strategy, which Fawcett said should be released before the end of the year. He hinted it will go beyond industry.

“Each and every individual has a role to play in emissions management and I think that’s going to be very clear as we roll out our emissions plans.”

Industry has been involved in developing those plans, he said.

Although Fawcett suggested Alberta has “a good story to tell” on the environment, the province is often painted as a ecological villain. Its greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, new information is being released on toxins released by the oilsands and concerns keep growing about the energy industry’s impact on the environment.

He acknowledged Alberta has a ways to go in convincing a skeptical world at conferences such as the one in Lima that the province is serious about improving its environmental record.

“We know that we haven’t necessarily been on track there. That means we have to redouble our efforts and think smarter about what it’s going to take to get there.

“We know that when we make commitments to the world, that there’s a trust factor there, and when you make those commitments you’re expected to meet those.”

Fawcett said it’s still possible for Alberta to do its share to meet announced federal targets that would bring greenhouse gas emissions 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020.

“It’s not going to be an easy task, but it is a possible one. There’s a lot of discussion that needs to happen on how to make that work.

“We’re past the point where there’s any debate around the science of climate change.”

Dr. Ward Wilson speaks after being named NSERC/COSIA Senior Industrial Research Chair in Oil Sands Tailings Geotechnique at the University of Alberta in Edmonton on Monday Dec. 1, 2014.

Transforming waterscapes into landscapes focus of new U of A research program

Engineering professor Ward Wilson has been named the NSERC/COSIA Senior Industrial Research Chair in Oil Sands Tailings Geotechnique.

Wilson’s research is aimed at advancing the rate at which oilsands tailings ponds can be reclaimed. Tailings ponds currently cover an area of more than 130 square kilometres in northeastern Alberta. Remediating them has presented many challenges for oilsands companies.

Wilson said his main focus will be developing novel technologies to help transform tailings “waterscapes” into reclaimed landscapes.

“It’s important to know that when you look at the tailings impoundments now, that’s not what they’re going to look like in the future,” he said. “That’s their operational mode. They’re settling basins. They are intended to look like that, they are intended to operate that way.

“And so we have a lot of waterscape, and that waterscape has to be transformed to landscape. So we need to get strength. We need to remove the water, we need to get the solids content up, and we need to achieve shear strength that allows equipment and people to work over the surface and reclaim the land. That’s the main target.”

Wilson said his responsibility is to “inspire and guide” the researchers working within the program.

“We’re about training the next generation,” he said. “We’re about training new expertise, developing new technologies.”

Wilson has a strong academic background and more than 30 years of industrial experience in advanced mine waste management.

“Dr. Wilson … is just truly the right expert at the right time with the right initiative,” said David Lynch, dean of the U of A’s engineering faculty.

The program is funded by the Natural Sciences Engineering Research Council of Canada and by Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance’s tailings environmental priority area – a group within COSIA that includes oilsands mining companies Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., Imperial Oil, Shell Canada, Suncor, Syncrude, Teck Resources and Total E & P Canada.

“The oilsands isn’t a single composition,” Lynch said. “By bringing together all of the industry, all of the varying types of oilsands deposits and challenges and opportunities can all be consolidated in the one chair program.

“Broad industry involvement is crucial for success in this area because what works in one deposit will not necessarily work for another oilsands deposit, because of the unique characteristics.”

NSERC and COSIA are each contributing $1.95 million over five years. Alberta Innovates – Energy and Environment Solutions has provided $500,000. Another $395,000 in donations in-kind has come from COSIA and Alberta Innovates.

Wilson’s appointment is for five years but renewals are possible.

Of 170 NSERC industrial research chairs in Canada, 21 are at the U of A. Eighteen of the 21 are within the faculty of engineering.

“No other university across the country has embraced the industrial research chairs to the extent the University of Alberta has, and we are very happy to be a great partner in these efforts,” said Pamela Moss, acting vice-president of research partnerships with NSERC.

Feral horses near Sundre, Alberta on February 2, 2014. The province is issuing permits to catch at least 200 of the horses in the area.

Wild horse advocacy group signs agreement with province

The memorandum of understanding between Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development and the Wild Horses of Alberta Society will allow the group to help manage horses in the Sundre area.

“It’s a five-year agreement,” said Duncan MacDonnell, spokesman for Alberta Environment. “The agreement allows Wild Horses of Alberta Society to undertake two experimental programs to help control the wild horse populations.”

But it doesn’t necessarily preclude another capture season this spring, he said, noting that decision is still pending.

Provincial officials have maintained the horse population needs to be balanced with the health of the grasslands – a position that led to controversy last spring as the province allowed a six-week capture season for up to 196 horses that could be kept for personal use or sent for slaughter.

Only 15 animals were rounded up by two ranchers,  but it led to protests – and even arrests – by wild horse advocates who suggested there were fewer animals than the province reported.

The official 2014 count showed there were 880 horses in the foothills between Kananaskis Country and Sundre, down about 100 horses from the previous year. It led activists and conservationists to suggest last spring’s capture season was unnecessary.

Throughout the debate, others suggested the province try other methods to manage the population.

The agreement between the province and the Wild Horses of Alberta Society includes a contraception program targeting female horses and an adoption program allowing the organization to take in and adopt out any young horses.

Bob Henderson, president of the society, couldn’t be reached for comment, but a news release issued by the group said it’s excited about the opportunity to help manage the horse population.

It noted that the contraception program will select a limited number of mares to receive a vaccine to prevent pregnancy for up to three years without disrupting the herd structure and dynamics.

The adoption program will allow the group to take in any young foals that have been abandoned or injured. It also allows rescue of any horses that stray on to private land or roadways.

The programs will all be run on donations from the public – including eight hectares of land, where a safe handling facility will be built.

Officials with the province said the Wild Horse of Alberta Society will be required to show results from both of the programs over the five-year period.

A report released Wednesday estimates the city would save about $9 million a year running 250 buses powered by electricity rather than natural gas or diesel.

Edmonton should plan to buy up to 250 electric buses, report recommends

A report released Wednesday estimates the city would save about $9 million a year running 250 buses powered by electricity rather than natural gas or diesel.

“Electric buses represent a transformational technology that provides a unique opportunity to simultaneously realize economic, environmental and social benefits.”

The vehicles need less maintenance because they don’t have an engine or transmission, and power along with infrastructure to supply it is cheaper than the alternatives.

ETS began using two compressed natural gas buses in January 2013 and started a trial of two electric vehicles last May.

The Stealth buses, built in Changsha, China, have run in St. Albert and handled NAIT’s Ookspress route.

They’ve also been tested in Ottawa and Montreal, and operate in Gatineau, Que.

Transportation general manager Dorian Wandzura said the buses have been a big success in Edmonton.

“It’s pretty promising technology, but it’s not an unequivocal green light,” he said.

“They’re performing really well right now. There’s great acceptance from the public, the operators like them.”

He wants to hold trials for about two years, including a project this winter using two vehicles outfitted for cold weather.

However, electricity has already replaced compressed natural gas as the alternative propulsion source to diesel being considered, he said.

ETS started several years ago looking at whether to outfit the new Westwood garage to house about 250 natural gas vehicles, he said.

The report recommends against putting natural gas or electricity infrastructure in Westwood.

Current garages could hold 30 to 50 electric buses, which each cost $280,000 more than diesel to buy, without major modifications.

The vehicles create 7,860 tonnes of greenhouse gases annually, roughly half the amount emitted by the other two fuel sources.

However, the report, which will be discussed this month during city budget deliberations, cautions there’s limited information about the cost projections.

It suggests completing tests of natural gas and electric buses and coming up with a funding plan so purchases of the electric versions could start in 2017.

Centrifuge lab with Rick Chalaturnyk from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. He is standing behind the swinging cradle.

World-class lab at U of A to investigate unconventional hydrocarbons

Rick Chalaturnyk, a U of A professor of geotechnical engineering, was named Tuesday as the inaugural holder of the Foundation CMG Endowed Chair in Reservoir Geomechanics.

The research chair is an integral component of a new research program aimed at developing hydrocarbon recovery technologies that are economically, environmentally and socially sustainable, said David Lynch, the U of A’s dean of engineering. Pulling together the program’s components took seven years.

“This is, as we would all recognize, an incredibly important area of research for the development of Alberta and beyond,” Lynch said at the announcement.

“This is a worldwide phenomena and the importance of it cannot be understated in terms of the safe and responsible development of our resources.”

Chalaturnyk and his team of 39 researchers and technical staff are investigating the properties and behaviours of oilsands, caprock and other materials during the process of recovering unconventional oil and gas from deposits deep underground.

“At the heart of it, it really is about conducting some complex, high-temperature, high-pressure testing on all these classes of materials – oilsands, shales, carbonates – to improve our understanding of how these behave,” said Chalaturnyk, who is internationally recognized for his expertise.

His world-class laboratory – the Geomechanical Reservoir Experimental Facility – includes Western Canada’s only beam centrifuge, a high-temperature/pressure testing facility, and a 3-D printer that can create uniform rock samples from sand.

The beam centrifuge can spin a 500-kilogram payload at 280 revolutions per minute, simulating high-pressure conditions under which caprock can fail.

Two incidents in Alberta’s oilpatch highlight the need for the research focus, Chalaturnyk said during a tour of the lab.

In 2006, an explosive release of steam at Total E & P Canada’s Joslyn Creek steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) project north of Fort McMurray caused a surface disturbance about 125 metres by 75 metres.

Rocks flew hundreds of metres from a crater caused when the steam shot up. An investigation showed that a breach in the rock above the bitumen layer was caused by the company using steam pressure above approved levels.

The second event was in 2013, when CNRL reported four incidents of bitumen flowing to the surface at its Primrose East and South locations northwest of Cold Lake. About 1.2 million litres of bitumen emulsion was recovered from a 21-hectare area. The Alberta Energy Regulator said the incidents were likely caused by CNRL’s steaming strategy and potential well bore issues.

About 60 per cent of the program’s research is related to these types of events, Chalaturnyk said.

Funding partners include Athabasca Oil, BP Canada Energy, Brion Energy, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., Cenovus, ConocoPhillips, Foundation CMG, Nexen, Shell Canada, Statoil Canada and Suncor Energy.

Government funding is from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures, and Alberta Innovates – Energy and Environment Solutions.

Calgary-based Foundation CMG, which funds research into oil and gas reservoir modelling, gave Chalaturnyk bridge funding in 2010 to get the program started.

“Today is a fun day,” Foundation CMG president Duke Anderson said. “I’m thrilled this day has finally arrived.”

Student researchers from the University of Alberta install state-of-the-art wireless sensor networks in remote forests around the world to monitor high resolution photosynthesis and seasonal productivity trends to help track patterns in carbon dynamics near the Earth’s surface.

U of A’s ‘game-changing’ sensors revolutionize methods of monitoring climate science data

From his office on U of A campus, professor Arturo Sanchez can tell whether the forest soil is getting drier, whether spring is early or late, or whether lightning caused a forest fire – all from data streaming dozens of times a minute from the sensors.

“It’s so cool,” says the upbeat professor in the department of earth and atmospheric science and project leader working with a team of Canadian and international scientists. The data is so detailed it can measure how much carbon dioxide the forest is absorbing or emitting, how much sunlight plants are using in photosynthesis, and predict a drought.

The Alberta-developed technology is “a game changer” for researchers and a new tool in the world’s battle to monitor climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, says Sanchez.

It’s also a great new tool to help Alberta policy-makers understand the environmental impacts of oilsands development or forestry companies and how to mitigate the impacts, he says.

Next week, Sanchez will take the system, called Enviro-Net, to a UN climate change conference in Lima, Peru, so the rest of the world can take advantage of this major scientific advance.

The concept of real-time measuring came to Sanchez but the technology wasn’t there. So the U of A team had to built the specialized sensor which records 64 different climate details.

This one records two measurements every second and sends the data to a tower in the forest which relays it to the university.

“The University of Alberta has the capacity when faced with challenges to develop the technology,” Sanchez adds.

The next problem was how to deal with the massive flow of data streaming in every second all day and all night from the censors; how to find the trends and changes.

“In other words, how to move from data to knowledge,” says Sanchez.

That’s where IBM came in with its software capable of handling large data streams – called advanced analytics.

The software provides real-time analysis for 10,000 points of data per second from sensors now placed in Australia, Costa Rica, Brazil and Mexico as well as Alberta.

“You can quickly see a trend line if soil moisture is rising or falling,” he says.

The team chose the Peace River area for a test site about 2-1/2 years ago. The idea was to get baseline data about the health of forests before oilsands development takes off.

“We are finding out what are the conditions of the environment, the health of the forest, before development starts,” Sanchez says.

Over the years, policy-makers can watch in real time the changes and measure them against the baseline data.

This Enviro-Net tool will enhance Alberta’s ability to provide world-class environmental monitoring and keep track of changes due to climate change as well, Sanchez notes.

This technology will benefit many countries and that’s why the U of A is taking the system to the public, he adds.

In Costa Rica, for instance, the sensors revealed that a forest there, under drought conditions, absorbed 40-per-cent less carbon than the year before.

That’s a key piece of information for the country which is trying to become carbon neutral by 2020, says Sanchez, who began working on the system four years ago.

Scientists used to collect data themselves in the forest, then took months to analyze it and report it.

“Now we can basically ‘see’ the forest breathing in real time,” he says.

Kendra Leavitt, a scientist at Delta Genomics, holds a livestock hair sample sent by a farmer for genetic analysis.

Edmonton DNA lab lets ranchers take a look under the hide

The not-for-profit company – spun off from the University of Alberta’s Livestock Gentec genetic research centre and celebrated Thursday for graduating from TEC Edmonton’s business incubator – is the first full DNA lab specializing in livestock in Canada.

“The livestock industry will send us samples of their animals, and we can look under the hide for them,” said Delta chief executive Colin Coros.

“We look at the DNA sequences and from that, we can infer traits of importance for those producers.”

Genomics is the extraction and analysis of DNA to identify genetic markers.

Ranchers are looking to encourage traits that make animals feed more efficiently and improve the quality of their meat.

“We provide that information back to the breeders and producers to allow them to make better breeding decisions.”

Farmers who breed livestock and typically rely on observable qualities such as physical size can now get an animal’s full hereditary information.

“What we can do now is add another layer of information to them, looking at the genotype as well,” Coros said.

As global demand for protein rises due to population growth and a burgeoning middle class, Coros says Delta will help the livestock industry boost its production using fewer resources.

“We believe that genomic technologies can help differentiate Canadian livestock and help improve the quality of meat that we sell to the world and do this in a more sustainable manner.”

Delta obtained $3.5 million in seed funding in 2011 from Western Economic Diversification.

Since the company launched in 2012, its Enterprise Square lab has grown to a dozen employees and processed more than 100,000 samples, including hair, blood, semen, tissue and even the bones of a dead bull that had been buried for years and dug up.

There are more than 12 million cattle in Canada and about the same number of swine.

“We still have a long way to go, but some of the most influential animals have been genotyped or sequenced in our facility,” Coros said.

“We anticipate genomics can impact all of the livestock species. Right now, 100 per cent of the dairy breeding bulls in Canada have a genomic profile done and in the next few years, we anticipate that 80 per cent of the beef industry will have genomic profiles on all their animals. The swine industry is even ahead of the beef industry in terms of genomics.”