Workshop attendees identify opportunities for resource industries to work together to meet emissions, land, and water challenges

Grain elevator. Source: iStock/keeperofthezoo ; Wind/solar image: Source: iStock/Eyematrix

Attendees at a recent virtual workshop focused on how the resource sector can collaborate to meet current and future generations’ expectations for environmental sustainability identified numerous opportunities and technologies that can help meet the ESG challenge while improving corporate performance.

Key opportunities where agriculture, forestry and energy could collaborate included: the production of biofuels; fuel-switching to lower greenhouse gas emissions; leveraging new energy and petrochemical technologies to fuel agricultural growth; changing land management practices in forestry and agriculture to increase production while lowering emissions; carbon sequestration; and sharing of water resources.

The attendees also identified some roadblocks to improved collaboration, and some potential solutions through collaboration to change government policies and drive technological advances.

The production of biofuels is not new in Alberta, but there is an emerging opportunity to expand as new federal clean fuel standard are introduced, said many attendees. The focus, said the attendees, should be on leveraging new technologies that use agricultural and forestry waste products as feedstock for production.

“To be successful we need to show we’re not competing with food,” was one comment.

While the group supported standalone biofuel production like the Canary Biofuels plant (photo above by Canary Biofuels) near Lethbridge set to begin production this year, there was consensus that traditional oil-based refineries will be key to growth in the industry.

“Policy support to facilitate refineries to integrate carbon-friendly fuels into their processes is needed,” said one attendee.

Fuel switching was presented as an opportunity to increase demand for natural gas production domestically while reducing emissions. The enclosed agriculture model – similar to the Doef’s Greenhouse partnership with EnerMerge Inc. in central Alberta – which uses natural gas to produce power, heat, and carbon dioxide for the greenhouse rather than buying electricity from the grid to power lights and boilers, was seen as a model that could be expanded across Alberta. This model could also be used in the emerging geothermal power and lithium brine extraction industries to optimize production while cutting emissions. The idea with geothermal would be to extract both heat and power in a co-generation facility.

“It can have multiple uses rather than a single use. Make it more than just an energy solution,” said a workshop participant.

Opportunities to switch out diesel fuel for compressed natural gas or liquefied natural gas in heavy machinery used in forestry and in farm machinery were also presented. Attendees pointed to dual-fuel drilling rigs and other equipment in the oil and gas industry as the model to follow. In the future, they said hydrogen could replace natural gas as the fuel of choice.

“Not only would switching to natural gas cut greenhouse gas emissions, it would also cut air pollution like particulates,” was one comment. “And it would be an easy switch, although maybe not the final switch to hydrogen.”

A few attendees saw an opportunity for blue or green ammonia production that would benefit both the energy and agriculture industries. Blue ammonia refers to ammonia produced from natural gas while green ammonia refers to the use of renewables for energy supply. The ammonia produced could be used as fertilizer or as an energy storage system to be burned when solar or wind energy wasn’t effective.

Changing land management practices in agriculture and forestry was seen as an opportunity to create more value while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It was also seen as an opportunity to lower carbon offset costs for energy producers if managed well.

Regenerative agriculture, farming and grazing practices that rebuild soil organic matter and soil biodiversity, has potential to deliver both economically and environmentally, many attendees said.

“Regenerative practices can increase carbon sequestration. Nitrogen management can reduce greenhouse gas emissions like nitrous oxide and not compromise yields. It increases soil health and makes more resilient soil. It also increases the storage capacity of water,” was one comment.

There are however, significant challenges to moving regenerative practices forward, including difficulty in measuring carbon sequestration to accurately apply offset credits, high costs to buy the equipment necessary to change practices, and training of farmers to manage this change.

“Incentives or rewards are needed,” said one commenter. “And the greater public needs to understand these cultural practices.”

A few attendees saw an opportunity to convert poor quality farmland into agro-forestry operations while leveraging many of the principles of regenerative agriculture in the process. The goal is a steady supply of wood fibre for biofuels and biomass power generation while providing wildlife habitat and carbon sequestration opportunities.

“Look for tree species that will grow where crops don’t do well,” was one comment.

Better forestry management practices were also identified as having potential to cut emissions while improving land use and water quality and quantity.

Reclaiming retired oil and gas sites was seen as an opportunity to test new ideas and technologies by the workshop participants. There were suggestions they could be used for sites for renewable energy installations including wind, solar, and battery storage facilities with the energy production used by agricultural and forestry operators. 

But some attendees worried about the potential negative environmental impacts of these installations.

“There is the full carbon footprint that needs to be looked at,” said one attendee. “I support renewables but we also need to look at other countries to see what the implications are on the ecosystem.”

Water availability and quality was seen as an area facing great challenges to manage effectively. There was concern over local, regional, and province wide water availability and how it will be allocated in the future.

Numerous workshop participants said while there is lots of supply in the north and along the eastern slopes, demand for water is located in the south.

“And with climate change some parts are going to get wetter and some drier, and some will face flooding and some will face drought,” was one comment.

There were a number of suggestions that new infrastructure was already needed to address supply concerns in the south where water is already over-allocated. This included building new water storage facilities and improving water-use efficiency.

In energy, there were suggestions the new carbon dioxide pipeline could cut down on the use of potable water through the replacement of waterfloods with CO2 floods. There were also suggestions to better manage use of surface run-off often used in fracturing activities, and to continue with efforts to use lower quality water whenever possible.

“We look to use the lowest quality water but we use lots of high quality water due to regulations,” said one participant. “And, it’s just easier.”

Re-using wastewater from other industries like pulp and paper production and municipal wastewater streams was also suggested. A big challenge, however, was a lack of an across industry platform identifying potential water sources that could be re-used.

Many attendees said collaboration between industry, government, and the public is needed to address water issues. There is a need for improved water policy, more data in many watersheds, and water management plans in specific regions.

The resource sector workshop, entitled Growing Forward Together: An energy, agriculture and forestry industry collaboration workshop, was sponsored by Nutrien, AgExpert, and EY.

Partners included: Ag for Life, Radicle, Weather Innovations, and JWN Energy.

Editor’s NoteIn late-March leaders from the agriculture, energy, and forestry industry gathered virtually to discuss how they could work together to address environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues impacting their respective industries. The focus was on finding opportunities to collaborate on projects in emissions reduction, water use and quality challenges, and land use challenges.

This three-part editorial series addresses the outcomes from this workshop.

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