Every segment of the industry is addressing the local, regional and global environmental issues that arise from continued, and increased, production and use of crude oil and natural gas. The industry has made great strides in reducing its impacts on soil, water and wildlife during the past several decades. Air issues pose some of the biggest challenges to sustainability and are being addressed in many ways.
The oil and gas industry’s key strategies for reducing impacts of air quality include improving the energy efficiency of operations and capturing more of the gases and vapours formerly released into the atmosphere. Similarly, the consumers of oil products and natural gas can do their part by purchasing more efficient vehicles and appliances. New vehicles, for example, release considerably fewer hydrocarbon vapours from fuel tanks and exhausts than equivalent older vehicles. End users of petroleum, as well as the producers, need to operate and maintain equipment responsibly.
Sulphur and nitrogen oxides and other emissions that contribute to acid rain and smog, and the greenhouse gases that affect global climate, are among the major air quality issues faced by the oil and gas industry. The industry’s energy use and emissions per unit of production decreased in the 1990s, but this was offset by the major increase in total crude oil and natural gas output. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a major challenge facing the industry in the 21st century. Producing, processing and transporting crude oil and natural gas accounts for about one-sixth of Canada’s energy-related greenhouse gas emissions. Companies representing more than 90 per cent of Canadian petroleum production have supported voluntary efforts to reduce these emissions.
For example, changes in equipment and procedures by natural gas production companies have greatly reduced the amount of methane released into the atmosphere. Government and industry are working together to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released when unmarketable natural gas is flared during operations. Transmission pipelines have been curbing emissions by improving energy efficiency of facilities so that they consume less electricity and natural gas, and by reducing releases of methane into the atmosphere.
About two-thirds of Canadian crude oil demand is for motor vehicle fuels. Motor vehicle manufacturers are performing research and development on future vehicles that provide the same safety, comfort and capacity as today’s vehicles but use one-third as much fuel. Canada’s urban design, geography and population dispersal make it difficult to provide effective, efficient and economical mass transit options for many parts of the country. This decentralization means that motor vehicles are likely to remain a dominant feature of transportation systems outside the major metropolitan areas.
The effect of motor vehicles on the environment will depend on how rapidly science and technology can produce more efficient models, what vehicles people choose to buy, and how much they drive. Alternative vehicle fuels from renewable sources such as ethanol or biodiesel are being developed, but the volumes produced are still a small fraction of the amount needed to displace gasoline and diesel fuel.
The other environmental issues facing the oil and gas industry – such as protecting biological diversity, maintaining soil and water resources and preventing toxic releases – are more localized but no less vital to sustainable development. There are encouraging developments in each of these areas.
Biological diversity is being addressed through narrower seismic cutlines, made possible by new technologies. Surrounding vegetation grows back more quickly over a two-metre corridor than over a five-metre swath. This is important because cutlines, like other linear clearings, can provide corridors for predators, hunters and recreational vehicles that disrupt forest ecosystems. Other advances in biodiversity conservation include greater use of native species for reclamation and scheduling oil and gas industry activities to avoid wildlife mating and nesting seasons.
Industry has also made progress toward reducing the amount of timber it cuts. The area cleared for well pad installations has been reduced by about 40 per cent compared to the 1970s, and drilling multiple wells from a single pad has become commonplace.
Co-operative planning between forest and energy companies, called integrated landscape management, reduces the number of roads required by both industries and reduces the effects of oil and gas development on forest growth and yield.
Extensive studies of marine ecosystems are now required before any offshore oil and natural gas activity. The effects of projects are monitored during the work and afterwards, and negative effects are rapidly addressed. Joint advisory bodies between the fishing and petroleum industries also help to ensure effects on marine resources are minimized.
The pipeline and oil sands mining sectors have been improving their techniques for restoring and replanting rights-of-way and surface mines. One key measure is stripping topsoil and stockpiling it separately for replacement over mineral soil. Scientists continue to improve techniques for monitoring soil contamination and using bacteria and fertilizers to restore soil quality.
Government and industry continue to develop new ways to reduce the amount of water used by conventional oil and gas activities and oil sands projects. Greater recycling has already reduced the industry’s water requirements considerably. New options include using treatment facilities to process wastewater so that it does not have to be injected into deep disposal wells, and using non-potable water whenever possible.
New regulations for workplaces and transportation in the 1990s led to big improvements in the way that hazardous materials are handled in the oil and gas industry, reducing the likelihood that workers or the public would be exposed to toxic substances. In many instances, companies found ways to reduce or eliminate their use of hazardous substances. A new national reporting system allows government and the public to monitor hazardous releases into the environment.
New challenges continue to arise, of course. There is, for example, a new focus on the “cumulative effects” of multiple projects and industries on an area’s residents and ecosystems. The oil sands area around Fort McMurray has been pioneering new ways to monitor and address cumulative effects. Another emerging issue is “encroachment,” which occurs when one land use (such as residential or recreational development) moves into an area where another land use (such as oil and gas production) is already well established.