Sept/Oct 2007

Shell Canada/ESA partnership offers a new perspective

By D. Zlotnikov

A sample of the satellite imagery generated for Albian Sands

In late June, Shell Canada and Albian Sands announced a new technology being put into use at the Muskeg River Mine. With the goal of enhancing the company’s reclamation monitoring program, Shell and Albian have contracted the European Space Agency (ESA) to provide regular satellite imagery updates of the project site.

The project was born when the ESA, in an effort to expand its satellite imagery customer base, solicited new sustainability-related contracts. Hatfield Consultants, an environmental consulting firm in Vancouver, was one of the groups contacted with the proposal. Hatfield then approached Albian Sands Environmental Manager Darrell Martindale.

“Hatfield Consulting does a lot of work with the various satellite image producers, and I’ve been working with them for a long time,” said Martindale.  “The ESA put out a solicitation for sustainable development projects, and Hatfield came to me and asked, ‘Do you think this is something we could do?’”

Because the Muskeg River Mine is still a relatively new site, said Martindale, the primary function of the imagery data is to supplement the data collected by the monthly ground-based survey teams. The benefit of the satellite data will become more prominent in the future, when the mine is beginning reclamation activities.

“This environmental team may not be here in 30 years,” said Martindale, “but the satellite imagery data will be available, and the analysis can be used in conjunction with the technologies that may be available in the future. At the moment, if aerial photographs are not available, the mine engineers rely on the satellite data for site development planning.”

Andy Dean, Hatfield’s remote sensing scientist who has been working with Martindale on the project, explained another benefit offered by this approach.

“Satellite imagery presents the information in a more visual, transparent form, which allows Shell and Albian use the information in corporate sustainable development reporting.”

This benefit lies at the heart of the original project proposal. The ESA, looking to expand its Earth Observation services to new areas, was seeking to demonstrate not only its ability to generate the relevant measurements, but also show that the data could be incorporated into the standard sustainability reporting done by major corporations. Satellite imagery is well situated for this, said Dean.

“It’s important to stakeholders that the data itself comes from an independent source. The analysis of that data, on top of being done by a third party, is audited. All the analysis methods and statistics produced by Hatfield were audited by PricewaterhouseCoopers. That gives both the company and the stakeholders confidence that the information is correct.”

Albian Sands commissions two data sets per year, which provide a complete picture of the changes in vegetation and landscape over the course of the year. But what the company gets is much more than can be seen with the naked eye.

“When I purchase the imagery,” explained Martindale, “I’m not just getting photos, I am getting seven or eight spectrum bands of detailed information.” With the continuing improvements in remote sensing technology, the bands can be focused to an extremely fine resolution.

“The near-infrared spectrum is a very good indicator of vegetative health. A lush green field will be a bright read in false-colour infrared. In the past five to seven years,” said Dean, “the resolution available to the civilian sector has improved drastically. Where you once had a resolution of 30 metres, now you can have a resolution of a metre or less. Image quality has also improved.”

Other advantages offered by the technique come in the form of standardization. Dean explained that there are standard methods for handling atmospheric and terrain distortion, as well as the nearly fixed position of the satellite.

Finally, satellite imagery allows Shell to gain insight into potential cumulative effects of Muskeg River Mine operations, information that could be used in future expansions. According to Dean, Albian Sands is currently the only project in the region using satellite imagery, but if the project continues to do well, his hope is that other operators take another look at the technique and its potential value to oil sands development and reclamation.

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