He may not be a movie producer, such as Steven Spielberg, but when Mike Preston talks about gathering more than 100,000 hours of film footage, you can feel the excitement. Perhaps it’s because his on-camera stars are not the Hollywood jet set — they’re the wildlife of northern British Columbia.
Based in Sidney, B.C., Preston is senior wildlife biologist at Stantec, a national leader in environmental assessment contracted by TransCanada to conduct field studies for the Prince Rupert Gas Transmission (PRGT) project.
Using motion-activated cameras, Preston and his crew are capturing a rare glimpse of the activities of large and medium-sized birds and mammals — such as eagles, cranes, wolves, bears and moose — living within two kilometres of the proposed pipeline route.
It’s not just the big animals who get special attention. Stantec is looking at ecosystems in the area to get a detailed understanding of how the PRGT project could affect the environment.
“Field studies are tremendously important,” explains Marilyn Carpenter, PRGT’s lead for environmental and regulatory permitting. “They improve our understanding of the environment, so we can make informed decisions and develop appropriate plans to minimize potential effects.”
An experienced backcountry hiker, Carpenter understands British Columbia’s deep connection to the land.
“The land is not just where we live, it’s how we live,” she says. Carpenter thinks a transparent environmental assessment process is critical to building trust.
Before PRGT can begin construction, it must demonstrate to the British Columbia Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) that it understands the effects of the project and that it can avoid or mitigate environmental issues to their satisfaction. The EAO sets high standards, plus it invites comment on the overall assessment, both from the public and from a working group that includes government agencies, municipalities and First Nations. PRGT plans to submit its application for an Environmental Assessment Certificate to the EAO in a few weeks. Until then, they continue to gather and analyze data.
“I can say with confidence that we will know the full range of species that could interact with the pipeline project and when, where and how they would be affected.”
– Mike Preston, senior wildlife biologist at Stantec
The list of study priorities includes fish, which isn’t surprising given their significance to British Columbia’s environment, economy and culture.
“We check all potential water crossings to determine if fish are present,” explains Preston.
“We identify the species and do a thorough investigation of their habitat. We look at the quality of spawning pools where eggs are deposited and rearing habitat where the fry might grow.”
All fish habitat must be restored or compensated if disturbed during construction. If a rare fish species is identified, PRGT considers options such as moving the crossing or doing horizontal directional drilling. That’s where the pipeline is drilled horizontally deep beneath the water with little disturbance to the ecosystem above, even during construction.
Often, the terrain and its inhabitants demand a unique set of skills and tools. To determine breeding duck density, Stantec flew the PRGT route four times. From the air, they counted the different kinds of ducks and determined their ages and genders, which is easier said than done.
“All ducks are brown in the fall because they’re molting,” Preston explains. “Very few people can determine the sex of a duck from the air so we brought in the experts — a retired professor from McGill University and a senior wildlife biologist from Calgary.
“We also hired a subcontractor who spent the last four years researching coastal tailed frogs — a unique species that lives only in mountainous streams. They’re indigenous to the Coastal Mountains near Prince Rupert and inland up to the Nass River, and are important to our study.”
Identifying songbirds also requires a unique set of skills, where more than 90 per cent of the data is gathered by sound.
“In June, which is when the songbirds are here, we use professional bird surveyors. It’s remarkable. The surveyors can stand in a specific area and just by listening to the songs and calls of birds, they can identify more than 100 different species.”
In the wetlands, where the inhabitants are nocturnal, hard to see or secretive, special acoustic recorders capture night-time sounds. They record eight minutes of sound every 30 minutes from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. for five consecutive nights. The data is then reviewed by skilled professionals and analyzed with software.
Although Preston’s focus is wildlife, he’s quick to point out that an environmental assessment maps everything that’s on the ground, including soils and vegetation. Then, working as a team, the vegetation ecologist, soil biologist and wildlife biologist build a theoretical model of the project’s impact. In the end, understanding the magnificent and diverse landscape of northern B.C. evokes both science and soul.
“We do the right thing, not always the easy thing,” says Carpenter. “Environmental assessments point us in the right direction.”
TransCanada recognizes the importance of environmental stewardship while we strive to meet the energy needs of North Americans in a responsible and sustainable manner, and we have been recognized for these efforts. For the 12th year in a row, TransCanada was named to the Dow Jones Sustainability World Index, a global index that tracks the performance of the leading sustainability-driven companies. TransCanada is also one of only 20 Canadian companies to be included in the Climate Disclosure Leadership Index. Learn more in TransCanada’s 2012 Corporate Social Responsibility Report (PDF, 6.1 MB).