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More than a map

Earth observation offers a new approach to sustainability

From space, it is possible to do more than just see the Earth. With the right technology, the planets changes can be better understood, and its industrial developments potentially better managed.

Over the last two years, along with Hatfield Consultants and the European Space Agency (ESA), the Athabasca Oil Sands Project (AOSP) has been working on a pilot to see how Earth observation data can support its sustainable development and aid in future mine reclamation.Accumulating satellite data is not new for the AOSP, but using the information for such detailed monitoring is.

Before, we were collecting satellite imagery knowing that we were going to need it, but we werent processing it. We used it for mapping purposes, says Darrell Martindale, manager of environment and regulatory compliance with Albian Sands Energy. When you buy satellite images, youre just buying electronic signals. You can use it as a map or an image, but there is so much more you can do with that information. The ESA project allowed us to explore other uses for the data. Were not just making pretty pictures.

Martindale explains that satellite imagery can be used to conduct important monitoring such as identifying plant types and the extent of certain ecosystems, as well as observing changes to water quality in the local watershed.
The ESA says that Earth observation images show the world through a wide enough frame so that complete large-scale phenomena can be observed to an accuracy and entirety it would take an army of groundlevel observers to match.

Martindale says the satellite program is a nice complement to the significant on-the-ground observation the AOSP already conducts.

We get the data in other ways, but were looking for better ways to use it. The satellite images back up our own environmental monitoring.

Another plus for the AOSP is that the images from the ESA came for free, as part of an initiative designed to integrate satellite imagery into corporate sustainability reporting. The oilsands project is part of a series of about 70 activities the ESA has been conducting in the last seven years in a program called Earth observation market development.

Our aim is to get information from satellites to be used by industries [big and small companies] in their business operations, and accepted as being of value, says Stephen Coulson, head of industry section, directorate of Earth observation programs for ESA. Its not a straightforward task; there are high expectations, and theres been a lot of overselling in the past. The ESA is planning on building families of satellites designed specifically to deliver a whole range of operational services for [monitoring] things such as the pollution of our water, the state of our forests, cities, and countryside, and the quality of the air we breathe. The first satellites should be available in around five years from now.

Martindale says the ESA is quite admirable in this initiative.

Using [Earth observation data] for sustainable development is a novel approach, he says, adding that in order to participate in the project, the work had to be showcased in a multinational companys annual sustainable development report. It is featured in Shell Canadas latest sustainability publication.

The project

Hatfield, and then Shell Canada/Albian Sands got involved in this project in 2005. Hatfield project manager and partner Wade Gibbons says the company has been working in the oilsands industryspecifically with the Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program (RAMP)for some time. When it heard about the opportunity with the ESA, it approached the owners and operators of the AOSP.

Because Shell Canada, Albian Sands, and ultimately Royal Dutch Shell are business leaders in corporate sustainability, we thought it would be a good fit, he says.

It appears they were right. In 2006, Hatfield acquired images of the AOSP from the French Spot 5 satellite, proceeding to compare the imagery to other satellite data that had been acquired the year before.

Hatfield says the goal was to assess the mine activity area, habitat fragmentation in the lease area, watershed, and region, and the potential for integrating First Nations traditional knowledge with the satellite imagery.

The processed images showed a 9.3 per cent increase in Shells land use from 2005 to 2006. This represents 2.45 per cent of the entire Muskeg River watershed, and 8.2 per cent of land used in all Athabasca oilsands activities, Shell Canada reports. In Shells [AOSP] project expansion, the amount of land use is expected to increase year over year before remediation and reclamation begins. The imagery acquired in 2006 can serve as a baseline, with repeat observations and analysis providing a record of Shells mine development and reclamation, documenting a commitment to progressive mining.

This is not the first time Hatfield has been involved in an Earth observation project. Gibbons says the company has worked with satellite imagery for close to a decade, on projects including flood monitoring in the Mekong Basin, which includes parts of China, Myanmar, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. It has also worked with the Canadian Space Agency on similar Earth observation activities in Canada, Asia, and Africa.

Engaging stakeholders

Shell Canada says an important aspect of its involvement in the satellite monitoring pilot program is to allow stakeholders to monitor future reclamation on its oilsands leases specifically the Fort McKay First Nation, the AOSPs closest neighbours. Albian Sands Martindale says that sharing the satellite data with Fort McKay became a seed for the First Nation to begin to use Earth observation, and geographic information systems (GIS) to manage their land base.

Hatfield is working with [Fort McKay] to capture information to build a GIS, Martindale says, adding that means integrating information like the location of trap lines, hunting sites, and migration routes into the system. That way, when industry approaches the band with a proposed development on its land, it can quickly see and explain the impacts it could have on traditional uses. This could help solve issues such as moving a road a couple hundred metres to avoid a significant archeological site.

[Earth observation] is a tool they will be able to use to manage their resources. Martindale says, and is quick to add that Albian is not pressuring the First Nation to use the satellite data. They will take it over themselvesthis is just a kickstart with the imagery.

Meeting standards

In order to ensure the credibility of the earth observation program, the results were audited by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Auditing is not mandatory, but is an important component of sustainable development reporting, the Hatfield report states. The assurance of information provides confidence in the validity of the results.

Hatfield says the pilot was designed to enable Shell to report on three Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) environmental performance indicators:

  • location and size of land owned, leased, managed in or adjacent to areas of high biodiversity value;
  • description of significant impacts of mining activities on biodiversity; and habitats protected or restored.

The GRI is a voluntary, internationally accepted reporting framework designed to raise the standard of sustainability reporting, Shell says. The company has been reporting using GRI guidelines since 2004.

The future

As the AOSP expands, Martindale says it will continue to collect satellite imagery to monitor development, but it wont necessarily come through the ESA. As well, the Earth observation is just one part of this aspect of the business.

“We are building our own GIS.”

Deborah Jaremko
Source: Oilsands Review