First-of-its-Kind Project Uses Cutting-Edge Technology to Build Model Lakes, Offset Environmental Impact of Alberta’s Oil Sands

University of Alberta researchers take lead in ensuring future compensation lakes are vibrant, long-lasting natural habits in preparation for future oil sands development

CBJ A first-of-its-kind $1-million project is under way in the Athabasca oil sands region that is expected to pave the way for future environmentally friendly development in the area.

The project — which uses leading-edge technology to monitor and assess vibrant compensation lakes, artificial bodies of water required by law to replace fish habitat dislodged by development — is being led by University of Alberta researchers with support from Canadian Natural Resources Limited (Canadian Natural) and Mitacs, a national, non-profit research funding organization.

“In order to sustain future development in Alberta’s oil sands region, companies need to pay as much attention to the environment as they do to economics,” said Ken Minns, former head of Habitat Science at the Canadian Department Fisheries and Oceans, based in Burlington, Ont.

“It’s about earning the ecological and social licences to operate,” he said, adding that the project’s findings are expected to help Alberta companies offset oil sands-related disturbances to freshwater bodies in the Athabasca region and beyond by establishing guidelines for sustainable lakes.

“There has always been an issue in the public domain related to large oil projects and whether or not they provide adequate environmental consideration,” he explained. “It’s time to move away from contention and get serious — we know development is going to take place and the trick is to find the most environmentally benign way to do it.”

Led by Dr. Mark Poesch, Assistant Professor at University of Alberta’s Department of Renewable Resources, working in conjunction with representatives from Edmonton-based environmental consultancy, EcoVision, the research is being conducted at one of Alberta’s largest oil sands development mine, Canadian Natural’s Horizon Oil Sands.

The research team will assess fish habitat health and deploy the latest methods in ecosystem development at Canadian Natural’s adjacent Horizon Lake, known by its Cree name Wãpan Sãkahikan. Developed in 2008, it was the first compensation lake in the Alberta oil sands region and, after eight years, is prime for further study to assess fish health and determine best practices moving forward.

The leading-edge technology used by the researchers includes hydroacoustics, a technique that uses sound waves to assess fish habitat similar to a commercial fish finder, as well as environmental DNA, an emerging technique that uses traces of DNA in water samples to identify and monitor freshwater species. It’s a sophisticated approach that allows the team to examine the whole ecosystem of the lake and learn how it behaves without causing stress to the fish since they don’t have to be handled, Dr. Poesch explained.

“Part of our challenge is that we have to figure out what ‘natural’ looks like,” Dr. Poesch said. “It’s rare that we get the chance to use science in such an applied way where we can actually make a difference on the ground. At the end of the day, we’ll have a better understanding of how to build a new lake from the ground up and make it sustainable into the future so all Canadians can benefit from it.”

The project is funded through Mitacs Converge, a new, national pilot program that facilitates research and development projects between Canadian small-to-medium size enterprises (SMEs) and multinational corporations, in collaboration with Canadian researchers. Converge is supported by Western Economic Diversification Canada and the National Research Council of Canada’s Industrial Research Assistance Program.

“Mitacs is proud to bring together this unique research partnership in Alberta’s oil sands region,” said Alejandro Adem, Mitacs CEO and Scientific Director. “The Mitacs Converge program is all about providing local companies with global access to leading edge R&D and innovation, which in turn helps up-and-coming Canadian organizations reach the next level of growth.”

For EcoVision, which has until now primarily conducted urban work, the oil sands project is helping extend the company’s reach into non-urban areas, while supporting the resource extraction sector. EcoVision is dedicating a full-time staff member, as well as access to the hydroacoustics technology, to the oil sands project.

“Our compensation lake at Horizon Oil Sands represents a unique alternative to addressing environmental impacts to fish habitat. The compensation lake is now a self-sustaining ecosystem with native fish species that are repopulating and thriving. Our collaboration with EcoVision and the University of Alberta will further advance our environmental monitoring efforts to obtain valuable data and knowledge,” says Calvin Duane, Manager Environment, Canadian Natural Resources Limited.

“The Mitacs Converge grant is a wonderful opportunity for our consulting firm to partner with world-class research institutions to develop innovative products and services that have immediate application to our client base,” says Jay Narayanan, Principal Consultant, EcoVision Consulting Group Inc. “EcoVision is delighted to be involved in this initiative with Canadian Natural Resources and the University of Alberta.”

Lorne Babiuk, Vice-President (Research), University of Alberta says “Innovative partnerships like these are not only important but also mutually beneficial. They bring together key players to tackle important and complex issues. Connecting industry with university researchers helps stimulate innovative thinking, and exposes researchers and their graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to real-life problems which they can help address. Such collaborative partnerships also provide valuable funding for students and real world experiences for students in the private sector. “

Quick Facts:

  • Mitacs (www.mitacs.ca) is a national not-for-profit organization that develops the next generation of innovators with vital professional skills through unique research and training programs.
  • Working with 60 universities, thousands of companies, and both federal and provincial governments, Mitacs builds partnerships that support industrial and social innovation in Canada.
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