Alberta’s oilsands region has come under greater scrutiny in recent years by the world in general, and now from outer space.

This year, Canada’s scientists started using existing long-term satellite data records and peered ever closer at their images so that industry and regulators can better manage the region, an industry forum heard this week.

If successful, they will be able to better detect when and why in situ blowouts occur, among other improvements.

Examining surface deformation by using a type of radar that can detect changes in elevation extremely accurately, and then corroborating the information with models the industry is using, they might better understand the science of how and when blowouts occur.

Water levels, peatland, snow cover, river ice and in situ site monitoring are all being looked at on a finer scale, said Darren Janzen, section head of optical methods at the Earth Observation Data Service/Canada Centre for Remote Sensing (CCRS), a branch of Natural Resources Canada.

Janzen said remote sensing can offer quite a range of data temporally and spatially to meet a variety of needs.

Remote sensing is the science — and to some extent, art — of acquiring information about the Earth’s surface without actually being in contact with it. This is done by sensing and recording reflected or emitted energy and processing, analyzing and applying that information through the use of satellites.

A number of oilsands-related information needs — knowledge gaps — such as water quality and quantity, air quality, biodiversity, biochemical cycling, carbon, wildfire risk and wildlife monitoring assessment were identified by stakeholders, Janzen told the Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada (PTAC)’s Resource Access and Ecological Issues Forum.

The CCRS won’t address these subjects themselves, but will collaborate with other organizations to provide the data to tackle those issues, he said.

The CCRS’ goal is to generate regional long-term satellite data records of daily composites for Alberta’s oilsands region at 250-metre resolution, and in 2015, when the next generation of satellite sensors is available, create annual or biannual composites at 20-metre resolution, said Janzen.

Water-level estimation by radar helps to support hydrological modelling throughout the Alberta oilsands region, to use for wet area mapping tools and evaluate the methodologies that have been developed.

Peatland monitoring is done using polarimetrics, to differentiate between bog and fen as well as the transition from one to another over time. It’s hard to detect when that transition occurs, but with satellites, it can be detected from space, said Janzen. This is done primarily to improve fire management in the region.

Snow cover monitoring is being done across Canada but not in real time, he said. Alberta’s regulators asked the centre if there was the possibility of doing this in real time so as to pinpoint where snow cover is melting so that fire and safety equipment and fire crews can be mobilized faster.

Scientists are also looking at freeze up and break up on rivers in the region, creating geospatial information that shows changes in ice cover and flood conditions over time. This is primarily for use by Environment Canada to validate calibration of hydrological sediment transport and contaminant transport models.

The scale and pace of development in this region and the remoteness of it makes it very hard to quantify what, where and how infrastructure has developed, said Janzen. “One of the things the regulators have said is that the amount of infrastructure being developed isn’t really well monitored, regulated and looked over…. We’re looking at creating multi-temporal, high-resolution satellite imagery data methodologies to assess where infrastructure is being developed and how that might impact various components for compliance monitoring.”

The national-scale land-surface characterization project is terrestrial information from optical satellites, of outstanding quality, span, detail and regularity, he said. It enables researchers to compare images from year to year. The scale can vary between one kilometre and 250 metres at either one- or 10-day intervals, for all of Canada. Every five years 30-metre resolution is produced. This is a new undertaking that is expected to be completed within the next two years.

He pointed to images of ice cover over Hudson’s Bay over a 25-year period. Scientists can actually see trends in the reduction of ice throughout this region and apply it to almost any region in Canada for areas that can be described in 250-metre to one kilometre resolution.

Four satellite sensors are being used now and a number of sensors have been identified for continuity, so that records can be extended from the present well into the future, Janzen told the forum, adding all the datasets have the ability to see more than what can be seen with the human eye.

The forum provided technical updates on research co-ordinated by PTAC, on behalf of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, in 2012.

These included projects related to footprint restoration, strategies for revegetating sensitive landscapes, caribou, grizzly bears, boreal song birds and ferruginous hawks.

The forum also heard that an Alberta study found grizzly bears do not have a simple pattern of habitat use nor avoidance of oil and gas features.

Researchers set out last year to discover if grizzly bears use habitat containing oil and gas development more, less or no differently than expected: in spring, summer and fall; and at both active and inactive wellsites as well as pipelines and roads.

They considered 32 bears’ gender and age, and the time of day facilities were visited.

Tracy McKay and Gordon Stenhouse of the Foothills Research Institute‘s Grizzly Bear Program found out that in spring about 80 per cent of bears were either closer than expected to oil and gas features such as wellsites, or no different than expected, and that adult males were farther from features during the day than at night.

“In the summer this kind of switches,” McKay told the forum.

In summer, about 70 per cent of adult males were farther than expected from oil and gas features and bears of all sex and age classes were farther from these features during the day versus at night.

In fall when there tends to be more people around, hunting for example, about 70 per cent of young bears were farther than expected from active wellsites. “A lot of our bears were closer than we would have thought to roads. This was a bit of a surprising result for us,” said McKay.

Expected use of habitat was based on quality. In other words, researchers expected bears to be in higher-quality habitat, she said.

About 65 per cent of all bears were closer than expected to roads and females were farther from features during the day than at night.

McKay’s research was paid for by the Upstream Alberta Research Fund, among others, and her 8,300-square kilometre study area was west-central Alberta, between Grand Cache and Grande Prairie. Data used was compiled from 2005 to 2010.

“These three results … suggest that maybe there is some kind of response to the level of human activity on that landscape going on, so this is helpful but in terms of looking at general, large-scale patterns across all of the bear classes to all of the features, we didn’t quite get the conclusive, clear-cut results that researchers are hoping for,” said McKay. “There was no really distinct pattern across all classes.”

Any time bears are near human features there is an increased potential for human-bear encounters, obviously, said McKay.

“This could mean a risk to oil and gas workers. Imagine being the person who is supposed to come and service this well on that day,” she said, pointing to a photograph of a grizzly bear gnawing on a faucet knob.

By Lynda Harrison, The Daily Oil Bulletin