Vancouver, BC – As the province looks for sustainable energy alternatives to help offset the impact of climate change, two sectors are emerging with the potential to fuel economic growth with reduced greenhouse gas emissions. These include natural gas sourced from deep shale formations and biofuels refined from renewable plant materials.
British Columbia’s natural gas strategy centers on development of a liquefied natural gas (LNG) sector fuelled by shale gas and the province estimates that LNG exports will generate an economic windfall approaching $1 trillion over the next three decades. Another pillar of British Columbia’s energy strategy mandates using blended biofuels including ethanol, methanol and biodiesel. Despite the promise of using shale gas and blended biofuels to offset climate impacts of fossil fuel consumption, recent studies indicate that both alternatives are not without social and environmental hazards.
Genomics is a relatively new tool to the energy sector but one that may be a game-changer when applied to operations, risk assessment and environmental monitoring. Genome BC is funding two research projects, led by the University of British Columbia’s Steven Hallam in collaboration with Sean Crowe and Uli Mayer, entitled Microbial community structure and function in hydraulic fracturing fluids associated with BC shale gas reservoirs, and Microbial community structure and dynamics associated with controlled biofuel release in laboratory settings, that seek to address sustainable development challenges from the perspective of the microbial world.
For the LNG/shale research, Hallam and Crowe have established collaborative partnerships with several industrial players including Shell, Progress Energy, Unconventional Gas Resources Canada (UGRC), and the regulatory BC Oil and Gas Commission (BCOG). Working closely with industrial partners to develop effective sample collection protocols the UBC team will apply genomic technologies to chart microbial community structure and function in hydraulic fracturing fluids at different stages of shale gas development. This research will provide a genetic blueprint for engineering biotechnology solutions identified by the industrial and regulatory user partners including issues related to shale gas production, monitoring and water management.
For the biofuels research Hallam and Mayer have established collaborative partnerships with Shell, the American Petroleum Institute and several regulators, including the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment, British Columbia Ministry of the Environment, Science Advisory Board for Contaminated Sites in British Columbia, and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The UBC team will investigate consequences of biofuel releases across different ecological scales, from laboratory cultures to subsurface microbial ecosystems. This research will open a genomic window on the environmental consequences of blended biofuel releases, enabling user partners to make more effective site management decisions and inform the development and implementation of new risk mitigation strategies based on ecological design principles.
“From a microbial ecology perspective, every time a well is drilled or biofuels released into the subsurface, a growth experiment is initiated,” says Hallam, an associate professor in UBC’s Department of Microbiology & Immunology, and a Canada Research Chair in Environmental Genomics. “Our ability to interpret these experiments and harness the results requires detailed understanding of the environmental conditions before, during, and after perturbation. Working closely with forward thinking industrial partners we are poised to bring microbial ecology and genome sciences to the energy sector in disruptive ways that promote more efficient resource recovery with reduced environmental costs.”
“As a regulator, the BC Oil and Gas Commission is responsible for ensuring responsible development and conservation of BC’s oil and gas resources,” says James O’Hanley, Deputy Commissioner, Resource Stewardship & Major Projects at the Oil And Gas Commission. “Genomics based research lead by Dr. Hallam and his research team could allow us to better understand the role microbial communities play in long-term gas production and provide more precise monitoring opportunities. This would help us fulfil our regulatory mandate to the benefit all British Columbians.”
“These projects are of huge importance to British Columbians,” says Dr. Alan Winter, President and CEO of Genome BC. “Bioenergy is an integral part of our future and genomic tools offer an opportunity to keep safety paramount while maximizing yield.”
The projects, valued at $436,510 (shale) and $400,000 (biofuels) were funded through Genome BC’s User Partnership Program (UPP). UPP is designed to form partnerships with users to find research solutions that address the needs of the key sectors of the BC economy and directly connect receptors in BC economic sectors to new products, services and practices that arise from genomics-related research. The UPP represents an initial investment of $9M for new research projects, with $3M from Genome BC. The remaining funds are to be provided by user partners and other co-funders.