Christine Daly wears two hats on a regular basis; she is a PhD student in the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary, and a senior advisor with the Reclamation Technology group at Suncor Energy. Her roles tend to overlap when it comes to changing the way that the energy industry undertakes reclamation and landscape planning.
After taking a month-long course on social innovation at The Banff Centre, Daly had a new perspective and a realization of how much of a power imbalance existed between communities, government and industries.
“Communities that live near operating facilities didn’t seem to have the opportunity to significantly influence reclamation design decisions and it really bothered me. I approached our leadership and said, ‘We’re going about this the wrong way and I think we should try something different. And that involves shared decision making’”
Fortunately, Suncor was very receptive, agreeing to pilot a collaborative Indigenous reclamation project and supporting Daly’s desire to go back to school.
Working with Fort McKay First Nation, Christine’s PhD research is a collaborative reclamation (co-reclamation) pilot project that involves asking the community and Suncor their opinions on every step of the landscape design. From selecting the piece of land, identifying goals, designing how the landscape should look, coming up with re-vegetation and wildlife plans, everything is done collaboratively.
“A successful pilot has to be successful from two different perspectives – the Indigenous community’s and Suncor’s. If positive outcomes come from the process, we’d like to replicate the approach on other disturbed pieces of land at Suncor requiring reclamation,” says Christine.
“Our hope is that through collaborative organizations like Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), other companies might want to use the approach too.”
Seeing a positive change
Daly’s confidence in a positive outcome is supported by the results she sees out in the field. A research and monitoring program with seven Indigenous communities out at Lake Miwasin (Cree word for beautiful), a recently constructed pit lake, is demonstrating a positive change coming from the collaborative approach. Pit lakes are a regular part of closure and reclamation plans and are considered a best practice in mining industries around the world. There are a number of pit lakes in Alberta that are now used for recreational fishing. For Lake Miwasin, Daly was part of the team that worked collaboratively with community members on the research and monitoring programs. Before construction work began, Suncor invited Elders from a neighbouring community to perform a blessing on the land of the lake.
“We work together with local community members and follow up on things we say we’re going to do, and we loosen the reins and invite communities to the table to work on designing things. It’s not just words, it’s actions,” she says.
Using innovation to meet climate change needs in Alberta
In recent decades, Daly has seen an upswing in the environmental movement — more day-to-day citizens talking about climate change, and more companies seeing it as just good business.
“Our province has been a leader in developing a climate change policy, one of the few provinces in our country. It’s an indicator that global citizens are more aware of their impact on the environment, and they want businesses to be more socially and environmentally responsible,” Daly says.
“Energy businesses are being smart and trying to evolve with the times. And to evolve with the times, the oil and gas industry needs an innovative approach and new technologies to meet Alberta’s climate policy targets to move to more sustainable extraction and production processes. I think that’s part of why we’re seeing innovation grow in our province.”
Environmental stewardship can be a win-win for business
Innovation can create a win-win situation for both business and the environment. Daly also works to preserve boreal woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou), a species considered at risk in Canada. Their chances of survival are further impacted when natural and man-made disturbances fragment their habitat. For example, cutting trees in crisscrossing lines across the boreal forest to gather geophysical exploration data contributes to their decline. With an increased ability for wolves to move down the grid of lines along with a decreased ability to hide, caribou populations are increasingly being cut down by predators.
Daly encouraged COSIA to seek out more sustainable exploration practices from other industries around the world to see if there were alternate ways to collect high-quality geophysical data without cutting down trees. This became known as the COSIA Land Challege. Sure enough, a company called Explor came forward, and Suncor is now working collaboratively with them in testing their PinPoint technology (https://explor.net/pinpoint/). The intent of the PinPoint pilot tests is to get the same geophysical data, without fragmenting the forest with seismic lines and tree removal.
Changing the way things are done to benefit the environment is something that benefits more than just trees and caribou. It benefits overall boreal forest biodiversity conservation and, consequently ecosystem resilience.
“If one company is doing something better today than they were doing yesterday, other companies take notice, stakeholders and shareholders take notice and it really can influence other companies to adopt more sustainable or innovative approaches to stay current with the time.”
Selling the “why”
It’s not just luck having supportive leadership that has allowed Daly to pursue her passions. Articulating the “why” can be hard, but she has been able to share her vision and garner support along the way.
“It’s where your emotional intelligence comes into play. It really is helpful to better understand where you fit within your organization and what’s important to your leaders. Finding out how something you care deeply about can support some of their overarching goals goes a long way in gathering support.”
How to sell your ideas?
- Figure out what will appeal to leadership. Working for a business means you may also have to figure out the economic aspect of your ideas, so leaders know what the return on investment is.
- Collaborate. Learn how to get something done that involves many diverse people and perspectives, and identify how to support their goals as well as yours.
- Use smaller wins to build your brand. Smaller wins will build your confidence, and that of your leaders. A proven track record makes leaders more willing to trust in your ideas.
Being successful at Environmental Stewardship:
- Know what you care about, what you’re passionate about. Get the educational experience to build that foundation on what your intuition says is meaningful to you and the world.
- There’s always a solution. No matter the problem, if you persevere and collaborate you can find an innovative solution.
- Have a network of people who support you and mentor you. There will be days where things don’t go well. Having your cheerleaders help you regroup and help you see the bigger picture.
- Celebrate the wins when you have them with the people that help you get there, because you never get there on your own. Recognizing your teammates on your initiatives, makes everyone feel good at the end. Always recognize your collaborators.