Integrated Environments Ltd. helps bridge an industrial divide

Assessment gurus weave social and environmental impacts into industrial reviews

October 14, 2011

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AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Look no further than faded film star Daryl Hannah to understand the perils of advancing a petroleum mega-project these days. In late August, the 50-year-old actress created her first media buzz since starring in the 2003 film Kill Bill, Volume 1, when she was arrested in front of the White House while protesting against TransCanada Corp.’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Upon her release, Hannah was seen repeatedly in media reports, railing against the evils of a project that will ship bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries.

Hannah’s very public opposition to the Keystone XL project won’t have any bearing on whether or not the U.S. State Department decides to issue TransCanada a permit to build the $7 billion pipeline. But the episode does highlight how tricky the journey is to get both government and public approval for large industrial projects. Not only do governments hold industry to higher standards than they did 20 or 30 years ago, so do non-governmental organizations and the public. The increased scrutiny on the oil and gas sector in particular has increased the need for companies to deliver airtight environmental and social assessments for their proposed development plans.

“It’s one thing to get an approval for your oil and gas company, which obviously you want to do,” says Thom Stubbs of Integrated Environments Ltd., a Calgary firm that provides management services relating to industrial development. “But you also want an approval that is respected by scientists and by community members.”

The expertise needed to pull off detailed assessments doesn’t always come from within the rank and file of the firms proposing the development. And that’s where a company like Integrated Environments comes in. Williams Energy (Canada) Inc., which specializes in the processing of oil sands “off gas” into natural gas liquids (NGLs) and olefins, is a prime example of a client in need.

Williams approached Integrated Environments to do a feasibility study for a pipeline it was proposing to build from its liquids extraction plant near Fort McMurray to Provident Energy’s Redwater fractionation facility. Williams was looking to determine the best route for the pipeline. “In order to minimize environmental and stakeholder impacts we engaged Integrated up-front,” says Art Sundborg, manager of environment, health, safety and regulatory affairs at Williams. “In this particular case we were looking for subject matter expertise – something that we don’t typically have in-house.”

The 125,000 barrels per day, $300 million pipeline was eventually built and it currently ships NGLs like ethane, butane and propane. By consulting with Integrated Environments, Williams selected a route for the pipeline that ran parallel with existing rights of way for 88 per cent of the 419-kilometer conduit. Sundborg says that getting quality assessments is important for companies like Williams who want to comply with government regulations.

But putting together a quality environmental and social project assessment is incredibly complex. The assessments study the effects a project will have on water, air, soil, wildlife, affected communities, their residents and more. Integrated Environments’ assessments account for each part of a project: the construction, operation, and abandonment phases. Depending on the size and scope of the project, completing the assessments can take as few as 30 days or as long as two years. The work is often pricey, costing clients anywhere from $10,000 to $2 million.

Companies in the business of providing specialized expertise for environmental and social assessments also have to be prepared to call in outside experts to assist them. “Our core experience is project management and we have a lot of experts in the assessment process, although it’s rare on a project that we don’t bring in a unique expert,” Stubbs says.

The consultants vary in their expertise. A sound specialist might offer insights into the noise of a refinery project, a soil expert if a pipeline is passing through fertile land, or one of many different kinds of wildlife experts if a project has the potential to disrupt wildlife habitats. Stubbs says that a big part of what makes Integrated Environments successful is knowing when to bring in unique experts for unique situations.

That expertise is a big reason Williams seeks outside consultation on the environmental impact of its projects rather than doing it in-house. Experts are often only needed on a case-to-case basis; keeping specialists on staff for a limited amount of work wouldn’t make sense. While the oil and gas sector provides Integrated Environments with lots of its work, the company is active in many other sectors. Some of its other clients include Parks Canada, the World Bank, and the Honduran Ministry of Tourism.

However, because oil and gas remain the favored fuels for an increasingly energy-hungry planet, companies like Williams Energy will continue to advance projects big and small. And each project will require assessments that address the concerns of the regulators and the public. That’s meant Integrated Environments’ services are in steady demand, though the nature of the work is in constant flux. When the industry advances development plans for the oil sands – as it is doing now – Integrated Environments gets a lot of work in that area.

When coal bed methane projects proliferated five years ago, there was plenty of work assessing potential impacts of drilling, a not always popular industrial activity in communities concerned about well-water contamination and other environmental damages. “The demand evolves in parallel with what’s going on in the industry,” Stubbs says.

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