PODCAST: What will it take to get to net-zero emissions in the oil sands?

Oil sands are reducing emissions through innovative cleantech and collaboration.

Wes Jickling of Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) explains how oil sands are on a pathway to reducing greenhouse gas emissions through massive investments in cleantech innovations and a focus on deep cooperation.   

“It is going to take collaboration on a scale that’s unprecedented,” says the COSIA chief executive of the commitment made by oil sands leaders to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Jickling discusses progress to date, as well as exciting advances on the horizon, ranging from CCUS and electric haul trucks to molten carbonate fuel cells. 

Transcript of podcast:

Leighton: Hello and welcome to another edition of the Energy Examined podcast, the podcast that discusses the issues facing Canada’s oil and natural gas sector with the insiders in the know. I’m Leighton Klassen. Today, I’m joined by Wes Jickling. He’s the CEO of COSIA, which stands for Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance. Today, we’re going to talk to Wes about some of the things his organization is doing, along with industry to lower carbon emissions. Welcome to the show, Wes.

Wes: Thanks, Leighton, thanks so much for having me.

Leighton: Yeah, pleasure to have you, Wes. So, let’s start about your organization COSIA. What is it and what do you guys do?

Wes: COSIA is the place where Canada’s oil sands come to innovate together. It’s an organization which we characterize internally at COSIA as a place of extreme collaboration where oilsands competitors — and there’s seven of them — come together to solve environmental challenges; do research and development on the challenges they face; develop technologies to improve environmental performance; and, really share and collaborate in technological innovation. They do this better, I think, collaborate to a greater extent than any other industry or any other group of companies that we’re aware of anywhere in the world. So, quite proud of the model that we have here.

Leighton: OK, and I mean, collaboration obviously is your organization’s expertise, something that needs to happen for it to be successful along with industry. And there’s a drive from different levels of government to the objectives of individual companies to move to a lower carbon future. So how can we get there through collaboration?

Wes: Well, I think you’ll hear companies and governments and organizations making all kinds of commitments, important commitments to address the climate emergency, so to speak. Those typically have centered around, a lot of them are, you know, net zero by 2050 or achieve net zero, and that’s across industries, not just in the oil sands. And in fact, as you were referencing, the Canadian government has adopted that same target: net zero by 2050. And now you see oil sands companies making that same commitment. So that is, you know, it feels like a long time and it seems like it should be, you know, pretty straightforward. We’ve got 30 years to get to net zero, but that is actually, I think, a very aggressive timeline and the scale of that challenge. So, it’s basically the pace of that reduction in GHGs and the scale of that reduction in GHGs, it’s a tremendous effort and it’s going to take collaboration. And of course, I would say that. I work in an organization that brings industry together to collaborate. But you know, there’s no single company, there’s no single government or organization or province that’s going to achieve this on its own. This is going to take a massive amount of technology innovation, a massive amount of time and money and risk to develop the technologies and do what’s necessary to net zero. And so, it is going to take collaboration on a scale that’s unprecedented, that we haven’t seen before. We’re going to have to have competitors working together, provinces working together, governments and industry working together on a scale we’ve just not seen before. And so, I would argue that collaboration is one of the keys here. Technological innovation is another key. And look, for the industry that I work in, the oilsands have been doing this for a long time in terms of collaborating and technological innovation, and I’m lucky enough to work in the organization COISA that has a pretty big role in helping them do that.

Leighton: So, what does, we talk about innovation being a big part of COSIA, what needs to be done in terms of innovation among your group, but also as you collaborate with industry in terms of how innovation can work towards lowering carbon emissions?

Wes: Yeah, great question. I think that the pathways, and we talk about technology pathways to reduce GHG emissions. The good news is the pathways are known to industry. We know that there is a suite of technologies, or a number of technologies that we are going to have to develop and deploy as an industry to reduce emissions. Again, on that scale and on that pace: net zero by 2050. There is no silver bullet technology and all of those pathways, all of those different technologies, you know, whether it’s CCS, carbon capture sequestration, whether it’s low carbon heat power or fuel switching or you name it. Each of the technologies in each of those pathways is at a different stage of readiness. For example, when it comes to carbon capture, a lot of the technology, there’s a lot of technology and a lot of expertise that makes that technology ready to build and deploy and bring into heavy industrial scale use now. Other technologies like hydrogen, like molten carbon and fuel cells, like natural gas decarbonization, like the use of solvents and in situ extraction in the oil sands. Those technologies, it requires strategic investments. It requires working together and comparing notes between those companies trying to improve performance. And it takes incremental gains in the performance of each of those technologies, both in terms of their cost, their economic performance, but also on their technical performance. It takes time and it takes a lot of money to test and refine and iterate a number of these technologies. And because of the time and because of the cost of advancing this number of technologies all at once, because we’re moving towards this net zero target together, it makes sense to do that research to do that technology development, do it together, share in the costs. We can get better results; we can share those results and we can go faster together. And so, when I talk about or when we talk about innovation and collaboration, that’s really what we’re talking about: advancing a number of different technologies, all at different stages of readiness, doing that together and improving them gradually over time, as quickly as possible over time. But it does take time to achieve that.

Leighton: Yeah. If it was only that easy, right?

Wes: Yeah. Oh, it’s easy to say and takes a lot of science to get it done.

Leighton: Yeah, exactly. And that kind-of leads me to my next question. And I know you’ve kind-of touched on some of the challenges, you know, risk, money, strategic collaboration. But what would you point is, is maybe one or two of the key challenges that — and I don’t want to be pessimistic here — but a couple of the key challenges that could potentially be a roadblock as we move forward to these goals?

Wes: Well, from my point of view and again, COSIA is dealing with some of that longer term or that longer time horizon. Like you said, there’s a number of technologies that are ready at a stage of technology readiness that they can be built and deployed now. We’re looking more at the ‘Hey, what’s three, four or five, 10 years down the road? Let’s get going on that technology development and R&D now.’ And so, that’s where I’ll really focus my response here. You know, like with any technology development process, you select technologies, you begin the process of researching and iterating and refining and improving the performance. It’s a case of advancing a number of technologies concurrently, which takes a tremendous amount of coordination. It takes again, a tremendous amount of time from so many people’s, so many companies’ subject matter experts. And, you know, it takes a real commitment and a real focus, shared focus among again, a number of competitor companies to bring all of those technologies along. And so, some industries may actually see that as a barrier. I’m super proud of the oil sands industry because you do have this group of competitors, the leaders of those organizations, the CEOs and senior executives talking together, making commitments to one another and to the public about reducing their GHGs, about working together as an industry and sort-of Canadian leadership and developing clean technologies to do this. I don’t necessarily see that. That’s an ongoing challenge, Leighton, but it’s something that I think the oilsands have shown themselves very capable and have a track record of 10-plus years of working so closely together and collaborating so closely together. And long may that continue. So, I’m proud of the leadership, proud of the track record of collaborating, and I think that’s going to be critical. The critical challenge in proceeding and achieving this goal is that the industry goes together, that these competitor companies go together on this journey. So.

Leighton: Yeah, and that’s one of the things, you know, we do often hear from critics that, you know, more needs to be done and needs to happen quicker. But what can you say about what industry has accomplished already in these goals?

Wes: Well, how I’d answer that question is by looking at GHG intensity, you know, the amount of CO2 or GHG or CO2 equivalents per barrel produced in the oil sands. And you know, these are 2019 numbers. But in the decade ending in 2019, the oil sands intensity reduced by 20 per cent per barrel. And that’s significant. And that is the result of technological innovations into the result of how more efficiently producing steam or more steam, less energy. It was about recovering waste heat and recycling that waste heat into capturing the heat and flue gas and recycling that into processes onsite in the oil sands. So, there’s a number of technologies and innovations that went into that. Now, I know it’s not like, proud of the track record, like the past 10 years, the level of collaboration in the performance improvements are fantastic. But what’s most important and what people are talking about and most interested in is the next 10 years or, what are we going to do by 2050 to get that to net zero? And the conversation has shifted from intensity to absolute emission reductions. And so, you’re seeing industry make, you know, commitments to absolute reductions in emissions rather than intensity reductions. And so, lots of technological innovation has gone into those reductions. And I’m excited about the technologies that we’re working on together as an industry now and continue to bring those forward, make those strategic investments, as I mentioned, and eventually get those ready and to the point where they’re ready to be deployed and deployed across the oil sands.

Leighton: Yeah, and that’s kind-of the last thing I want to ask you is, what are some of those cool technologies that COSIA members are working on?

Wes: Yeah, good question. I’ve mentioned a couple of times on our conversation here, carbon capture, utilization and storage, sequestration or CCUS. And as I mentioned, a lot of that technology is ready now. And so, there’s a big conversation happening about, ‘Hey, what can we, you know, are there things that we can deploy in the short term?’ But beyond that and sort-of the medium and longer term, kind-of on that three, five-plus year time horizon, we are looking at, first of all, doing some research into storage potential, both deep storage and shallow storage locations and the research, the fundamental research around doing so. In terms of technology in the CCUS area, one of the technologies that we were looking at or our members are looking at and evaluating is something called molten carbonate fuel cells. It’s a real mouthful: molten carbonate fuel cells. And so this is, to kind-of put it simply, a I guess it’s technologies that exist. These technologies exist and are in use elsewhere, but what they haven’t been— let me start by saying molten carbonate fuel cell, what it can do is take the flue, stream, the flue gas out of a natural gas generator, right? We use a lot of natural gas steam, natural gas fired steam generators in the oil sands, but it can take the flue, the waste flue gas from that facility, pass it through a molten carbonate fuel cell and what that does is, it creates electricity, clean electricity. It produces water and heat. But what it also does, is filters off the CO2 and compresses it for storage. And so, all of that technology exists. What hasn’t been tested before in a commercial scale is the configuration of that technology to take the raw flue gas. And so, that’s what a number of oil sands companies are doing right now and looking at and evaluating that technology. So that’s one. You know, again, the ‘u’ in CCUS, the utilization of CO2, of waste CO2 is something that we funded and supported in our Carbon XPRIZE, which brought forward a number of exciting technologies that use CO2 from a natural gas facility and create additional valuable products. And I think that the coverage we got on that is pretty significant. So, I won’t go into much detail there. But you know, we have invested, we have looked at ways of things that we can do, different technologies, develop different products from the waste CO2. Another one which has pretty significant potential for CO2 or GHG reductions from oil sands production, it’s kind-of in a bucket or a pathway that we would refer to as reinventing the extraction process. And again, that’s a, it’s a real mouthful. But when it comes to oil sands mining, there’s a number of technologies and approaches that some of the companies are using to really bring down their emissions. For example, there’s something called IPEP or in pit extraction process. And under this model, this is something that Canadian Natural is demonstrating and evaluating is, ‘hey, what if we, instead of driving all of the ore, right we use the big shovels and pick up the oil sands resource, put it in trucks and then drive it in the distance, sometimes a great distance to the processing facilities, what if we brought the processing facilities to the mine face or next to the mine, so we wouldn’t have to drive so far?’ So that’s really what this IPEP technology does. It’s a modular production facilities or extraction facilities that can be relocated as the mine face moves, so it really cuts down on the transportation. The other thing it does, is it creates stackable tailings, so it’s not a, what that means is it’s not the liquid or fluid tailings. So, that’s a really cool one. Another one is, you know, they’re electrifying. You know, you’ve seen these big, great massive haul trucks that they use in the oil sands projects. And R&D happening now is, how do we electrify those? Those things are using peak power only 30 per cent of the time, so 70 per cent of the time they’re idling. What if we could electrify so that we’re just using the right amount of power at the right time? And so again, a whole bunch of technologies there. Maybe the last one I’ll mention and there’s a lot of technologies I could talk about here, but the last one is on the in situ side, and I think this one has been, you know, a lot of focus on this particular technology and in situ producers and that is, is solvent. Right now in situ production is steam assisted gravity drainage, SAGD, where steam is injected into the reserve or the resource, liquefied and pumped to the surface. What if we could add or reduce the amount of steam which requires natural gas to create? What if we could reduce the amount of steam we need and include some solvents, some light hydrocarbon or condensates into that steam so that we can reduce the steam and the energy and the GHG requirements by 2030 and upwards to 70-plus per cent in some cases, the GHGs if we can introduce solvents into the steam that’s injected into the resource? So, these are technologies that are demonstrated in the field. The investments continue to refine the economic and the technical performance of them. And look, you’ve got me really talking here and those are just a few, right? And that’s without getting into a whole bunch of other ones that relate to methane and so on. So, look, I’ll stop there. But obviously, there’s a lot happening and a lot of really exciting technology is being worked on.

Leighton: Yeah, well, and it’s a lot to be excited about, and it clearly sounds like, you know, the ball is rolling on the innovation side. So, I mean, the fact that you can keep going is a good thing.

Wes: No, for sure.

Leighton: So, that’s great. The only other thing Wes, I know, I think a lot of this you guys promote on your social media channels and website. If you want to just list where our listeners can go to find out more about some of the technology you’re talking about and the other things that COSIA’s working on. If you want to mention that, go ahead.

Wes: Yeah, for sure. And thanks for that. I think maybe one of the ways to go in detail on some of these technologies and some of the stories surrounding them, we do have a podcast, a COSIA podcast and in each episode, we basically are taking a pretty deep dive into one of the technologies or a group of technologies or science. We talk to the people or the subject matter experts involved, and we may just geek out a little bit on the podcast and kind-of get into the details in the story, so that’s worth taking a look at. And you know, the other ones are, we’re active on a lot of social media channels, LinkedIn and Facebook and Twitter, and we’re constantly telling you stories which really are focused on technology and science and the innovators behind them, so you can check out our website. I think a search for COSIA on any of those platforms, social media platforms and on the podcast stores, you can find COSIA and our content. So, thanks for that.

Leighton: Perfect. Well, thanks. Thanks again, Wes, for being on the show.

Wes: Thank you very much, Leighton, for having me.

Leighton: Well, that was a conversation with Wes Jickling, CEO of COSIA. Stay tuned for our next Energy Examined podcast. If you like this one, please share it with a friend and make sure you subscribe on whatever podcast you have. For more stories and interviews on Canada’s energy industry, check out our website, context.capp.ca. Thanks.