Oil sands innovation alliance opens projects to innovators from around the world

Mark Lowey
June 11, 2019

The oil sands industry has begun looking outside of Canada for solutions that will improve the industry’s environmental performance. For the first time since its formation seven years ago, Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance is taking its open-source approach to innovation global with the release of more than 60 new innovation opportunities.

The projects will broaden participation beyond COSIA’s own membership to include solutions from innovators, entrepreneurs or companies anywhere in the world, industry leaders told two innovation conferences in Calgary.

“Our members are committed to continuing this kind of innovation and to accelerating delivery of improved environmental performance across the industry, which is why we are taking this significant step,” said John Brogly, COSIA’s acting chief executive.

Since COSIA’s launch in 2012, its members have invested $1.4 billion to develop about 1,000 distinct technologies in the areas of greenhouse gases, water, oil sands tailings and land. More than $770 million is dedicated to nearly 300 ongoing active projects in those four environmental priority areas.

“These innovations have the potential to improve water use, reduce greenhouse gases, and accelerate land reclamation at a global scale,” Brogly said.

Eric Axford, executive VP and chief sustainability officer at Suncor said over the last seven years, COSIA’s nine member-companies have reduced freshwater intensity (amount of freshwater used for every barrel of oil produced) by 42% at “in situ” oil sands operations. Oil sands mining operations have cut net water use intensity from the Athabasca River in northern Alberta by about 18%, and currently use an average of 2.1 barrels of water to produce each barrel of oil, he told Alberta Innovates' annual Inventure$ conference, June 5-7.

COSIA members also have reduced greenhouse gas intensity (volume of greenhouse gases emitted for every barrel of oil produced) by 11% for situ operations and 9% for mining, Axford said. Some emerging oil sands technologies, he added, promise more than 50% improvement in GHG emissions intensity. “That will put us at a completely globally competitive scale on carbon, no matter who we compete against.”

Despite that progress, the oil and gas industry remains Canada’s biggest industrial GHG emitter, accounting for 27% of the national total in 2017. The oil sands are the country’s fastest-growing source of GHG emissions, and Alberta has Canada’s highest emissions.

Industry vital for Canada’s clean tech sector

Through COSIA, “we’ve really been able to move the needle on environmental performance, as a result of working together,” said Cheryl Trudell, VP, upstream research, at Imperial Oil. Support from government also has reduced some of the risk of commercializing innovative technologies, she said. Alberta Innovates, Emissions Reduction Alberta and Western Economic Diversification Canada, for example, have funded many of COSIA and its partners’ projects.

Meera Nathwaini-Crowe, manager, technology and innovation at Canadian Natural Resources, said with the trend to more global open innovation in the oil and gas industry, “I see us sharing those innovation opportunities much more broadly and engaging more intentionally and strategically with the open innovation system to find solutions.”

Some Canadians argue for a quick transition away from oil, gas and other natural resources to more knowledge-based sectors, noted Nathwaini-Crowe. But she stressed that the oil and gas industry is already a knowledge-based sector, responsible for 75% of Canada’s spending on clean technology.

“So if we’re talking about wanting to move to a knowledge-based sector in clean tech, we’re going to have a really hard time doing it if we don’t have the pull from our sector for those industries and technologies.”

Wide range of innovative projects

Some joint projects presented by COSIA and its partners at the alliance’s June 3-4 annual Innovation Summit included:

  • A $143-million Water Technology Development Centre, to be fully operational by this summer at Suncor’s Firebag in situ oil sands facility. The centre will enable COSIA members and academic researchers to test new water treatment-and-reduction technologies at demonstration scale and under real-world conditions.
  • ConDex boiler flue gas and water recovery technology, which reduces GHGs by capturing and using exhaust heat in flue gas streams in oil sands mining operations. Imperial, which is leading this $12.7-million project, will install the technology this year at its Kearl mine.
  • A new applied research laboratory at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology will test steam-generation technologies for in situ oil sands production.
  • “Bitumen Beyond Combustion,” a program led by Alberta Innovates to advance development of non-combustion products from bitumen, such as carbon fibres, construction asphalts and polymers.
  • “Approaching Zero Land Disturbance Exploration,” which uses technologies and techniques to identify geological targets in the subsurface without cutting seismic lines and clearing surface vegetation.
  • A “filter press” pilot project to field test a two-stage chemical process to press water out of fine oil sands tailings to accelerate land reclamation.


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