February 27, 2017

Canada's oil sands competes with innovation

Saudi Arabia’s oil minister Ali Ibrahim al-Naimi issued this challenge to Canadian oil last month: cut your costs or get out of the way.

Canada’s response is clear: just watch us.

The Saudis have thrown down a challenge and Canada will ante up. With new energy infrastructure such as pipelines and marine tankers to reach customers around the world, Canada will hit the world market like never before.

Canada will innovate to compete not only on cost but on safety and environmental performance too.

Imagine a future of:

  • Producing Canadian oil with no adverse impact on water;
  • Transforming tailings from waste into a resource that speeds land and water reclamation;
  • Being world leaders in land management, restoring the land and preserving biodiversity of plants and animals; and
  • Producing oil with lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Whose aspirations are these? They sound as if they could come from a environmental or conservationist group.

They don’t. They come directly from Canada’s oil sands companies. This is the future of the oil sands, today.

Canada’s oil sands are committed to ever-higher standards of environmental performance. They are committed to lessening the impact of their work on the land, water and air around.

They have aspirations. They set goals and targets. And they collaborate with others – academics, scientists, policy makers – to make a lower-carbon future a reality.

And they put their money where their mouth is.

In March 2012, 13 of Canada’s largest oil sands companies formed COSIA – the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance. This is a unique partnership focused on accelerating the pace of improved environmental performance in Canada’s oil sands through collaborative action and innovation.

Since then, Canada’s oil sands producers have invested more than $1.2 billion in more than 800 distinct technologies and innovations in four separate categories; water; land; tailings; and greenhouse gases (GHGs).

The challenges are fascinating. And the results so far are impressive.

Today, about 90 per cent of the water used for in situ oil sands operations is recycled. The water is heated to create steam and injected deep underground to lubricate the oil and bring it to the surface.

So every year about 10 per cent new water is required.

Through COSIA, in only three years these oil sands companies have decreased by 36 per cent the amount of fresh water needed to produce a barrel of oil. The goal was to cut water intensity by 50 per cent by 2022.

That is accelerated Canadian innovation. That is environmental leadership.

For oil sands mining operations in northern Alberta, nearly 85 per cent of water used is recycled, with the bulk of the fresh water needed coming from the nearby Athabasca River. Roughly 2.2 barrels of water are taken from the Athabasca to create a barrel of oil.

Through COSIA, in only three years oil sands mining companies have cut by 30 per cent the amount of fresh Athabasca water needed to produce a barrel of oil.

This same commitment to higher environmental performance and results exists for land management and tailings.

Imagine electrifying tailings, a byproduct common in many industrial processes, to separate the water and the solids faster – to recycle the water and reclaim the land faster. It’s happening. Today. In Canada’s oil sands.

The same commitment to innovation goes for greenhouse gases and climate change.

The $20-million NRG-COSIA XPRIZE competition is underway, challenging the world to reimagine what we can do with CO2 emissions to convert them into valuable products.

Imagination is at the forefront of Canada’s innovative oil sands.

Imagine making electricity from CO2, not making CO2 from electricity. In Canada’s oil sands, we can. Cenovus is exploring the use of molten carbonate fuel cells to capture CO2 and produce clean electricity with near-zero GHG emissions.

Imagine using satellites to monitor more accurately GHGs from tailings ponds and mines. In Canada’s oil sands, we can. Imperial Oil is exploring satellite GHG monitoring from space.

Imagine combing CO2, waste heat and water, adding light and algae to make Canadian bio-oil good enough to fly airplanes overseas. In Canada’s oil sands, we can. Canadian Natural Resources Limited is exploring the use of algae to cut GHG emissions, capturing waste and converting it into useful products.

Each tonne of algae can reduce CO2 emissions by 1.8 tonnes, yielding valuable bio-oil and bio-mass products such as fertilizer.

The potential for emission reductions from algae technology is substantial. CNRL expects algae bio-refining to reduce more than 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 emissions – the same as taking 300,000 cars off the road.

Algae to fight climate change and make cleaner energy. This makes Canada’s oil sands the world’s energy of the future.

Last week, leaders on environment, energy and politics from around the world gathered in Vancouver for the bi-annual GLOBE conference on innovation and sustainability. The theme this year was “Bye-bye business as usual.”

Bye-bye indeed.

What does the future of global environmental innovation and leadership look like?

Today it has a distinctive red and white color, with a maple leaf.

It comes from Canada’s oil sands.

Where’s the next innovation from Canada's oil sands going to come from, outer space?

We’re already there. One step ahead of Saudi Arabia. One step ahead of the world.