On November 24, 2016, a group of dedicated environmental researchers and technology development stakeholders joined PTAC for the 2016 Ecological Issues Forum. A major component of the forum comprised updates on the Alberta Upstream Petroleum Research Fund (AUPRF) research projects. AUPRF is funded by oil and gas producers operating in Alberta and has a broad focus which includes reducing the impacts of industry activities on species and the communities they live in.
Anthropogenic environmental disturbances resulting from the lifecycle of oil and gas exploration, production and ultimately site reclamation are known to affect wildlife populations. However, the extent to which these activities contribute to population effects is unknown and must be investigated by carefully planned research and thorough data analysis. The figure shows the locations of the 8 specific AUPRF projects reviewed at this year’s Ecological Issues Forum. The legend shows the different Alberta caribou populations by colour.
Woodland Caribou populations continue to decline and habitat is shrinking northward. Recent research by the Foothills Research Institute has shown that caribou health and mortality is a complex issue. Caribou are affected not only by industrial activities, but also by predation and parasites. In fact, Erysipelothrix rhusiopathiae, a bacterial pathogen of many domestic animal species was detected in over 50% of mortalities tested. Further research is needed to understand the epidemiology of this pathogen in caribou populations.
Seismic lines have been implicated in increased predation on caribou by providing rapidly travelled linear corridors for predators, and young vegetative growth for the caribou. By comparing seismic line usage by caribou and their predators (primarily wolves and bears), there was no plant regeneration stage at which caribou no longer responded, stressing the need to encourage vegetative regeneration on these sites. Efforts to restore seismic lines and other land disturbances continue by limiting vehicular access and introducing soil mounds to interfere with the linearity of travel by predators.
Key take-aways from the research presentations include the need to develop common standards, and the means for different research groups to work together to integrate shared data. Ultimately, there is a desire by these researchers to develop management tools and policies at a higher level instead of managing at the site level or developing policy at the regional level.
A second component of the forum was a panel discussion on emerging technologies from other industries, including aerospace and remote sensing technologies and open data platforms. While there are still technological challenges with handling the extent of data, non-traditional partnerships involving government, academics, and industry working together to develop common platforms will allow the identification of emergent properties that will lead to informed decision making.
In summary, although the petroleum industry has invested millions of dollars in environmental research over the past several years, it is clear that the presentations represent only a small cross section of data needed to fully understand a highly complex system covering a broad set of geographies. Continued environmental research will generate large amounts of data, which will need to be integrated into an open network to provide extensive industry, government, and academic access to the data.
Nora McGregor, MSc. Carol Engstrom P.Biol.
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