PODCAST: John Brogly of Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance

Brogly discusses 10 years of oil sands producers working together on environmental solutions.

Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) celebrates its 10 year anniversary as a one-of-a-kind environmental innovation hub where oil sands producers work as collaborators rather than competitors, ensuring the oil sands are produced in a sustainable manner.

Energy Examined speaks with John Brogly, Water Director at COSIA and one of the organization’s original architects. He describes the impetus for the alliance, early challenges and the key accomplishments that are enabling Canada’s oil sands to be a long-term sustainable supplier of energy to the world.

Energy Examined Transcript

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 John Brogly. He’s the director in the Water Environment Priority Division at COSIA, which is Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance. And we’re going to talk to him about COSIA as this year the organization celebrates its 10-year anniversary. John, welcome to the show.

John: It’s great to be here.

Leighton: It’s great to have you. Well, for our listeners, let’s start off, what is COSIA?

John: So, it’s Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance. It was created, as you noted, 10 years ago, in February of 2012. And it’s an alliance of the oil sands producers either actively producing from their leases or at least planning to produce from leases that they own. And its goal is to improve the environmental performance of the oil sands through collaborative action in innovation.

And so, what makes it different, I think, than other industry associations is its legal construct. And so, it’s, it’s made up with some fairly detailed, you know, about 600 pages of legal agreements. So, each one of our members is a shareholder. It’s a for-profit organization, not a not-for-profit. And each one of our shareholders owns one share.

And the big difference with COSIA is that members share technology, whether they develop it by themselves or jointly with some of the other members, they grant all of the other members use rights to that technology, so they don’t give up ownership of the technology that they develop, but they do grant use rights in the oil sands to the other COSIA members. And of course, the other COSIA members reciprocate.

And so, the idea behind that is that whether one person or a number of folks come up with a good idea that’s going to help reduce the environmental footprint of the oil sands, everybody gets to enjoy the benefits whether or not you paid for them. And of course, Company A is going to pay for some, Company B for others. They share the results and the use rates accordingly. And so, the idea is if it’s win-win, everybody benefits. And most importantly, of course, the environment benefits: the oil sands’ environmental footprint gets smaller as a result of this collaboration.

Leighton: Yeah. It’s a really unique organization and the way it’s set up. I’m interested to know, when did you join COSIA and how did that all come about?

John: Well, so I guess my history with COSIA goes back close to a year before it was even formed and so, I was on a team of three other people, which eventually became four other people to create foundational documents to create COSIA in the first place. And so, part of the reason I was on that team is because I was involved in the formation of a predecessor organization and basically an organization that made the foundation for legal agreements for COSIA. And that was the Oil Sands Tailings Consortium. So, I’d helped stand that up.

And as a result, I was on a team with these other folks and reporting to a senior advisory group made up of typically VP of Technology Development from our member companies to come up with what the structure of COSIA should look like and kind-of the principles and so on and how it would be founded. And so, I worked on that throughout the summer, early summer and into the early fall of 2011 to help form COSIA in the first place. And so, it was officially created, I think, at the end of February of 2012. And so, yeah, so I, I still have some of the documents that eventually morphed into 20-page guide documents on how we run business at COSIA. But I’ve got the original ones that we were thinking about in that early summer of 2011. So that kind-of predates COSIA.

So, I was involved in that phase of it and once it was stood up, they started looking for directors for each of the environmental priority areas, that’s greenhouse gases, land, tailings and water. And the water director came up and at the time I was working at Canadian Natural’s Horizon Mine and, and so I was initially seconded and then joined COSIA full-time. So, I started at COSIA in August of 2012. So, my 10th anniversary will be this August.

Leighton: Okay. And what was the impetus to launch an organization like COSIA?

John: Well, I think, you know, at the time at least, and that’s the other thing that I probably should have mentioned about its formation, but now is as good a time as any. I think the drive to create COSIA came directly from the CEOs of the member companies, and that makes a big difference because — I love telling this anecdote, because our first chief executive, Dan Wicklum, used it fairly often in the early days, but I thought it never got old.

And he had asked that when they were forming their joint venture agreements and the first one was water, the one that I manage. And when he asked this group of lawyers and at the time, by the way, we had 15 members, he asked this group of I think, one probably didn’t have a lawyer on that legal team. So, he asked these 14 lawyers how long it would take to draft an agreement that would allow each one of those 14 members to share intellectual property. And the answer was anywhere from two years to never. That was their estimate. And the water joint venture agreement went out for execution in four months.

Leighton: Okay.

John: And as I explained to people, the only way that’s going to happen is if the CEO goes to the VP Legal and says, ‘look, I know you’re busy, your guys are always busy, but I think this is important. We’d like this done quickly and efficiently, and I don’t want to hear excuses, if you don’t mind. So just get this thing done’. And so, four months later, the water joint venture agreement was ready for execution. And so that was another big difference. And so back to your question, what was the impetus? I think a few things happened at that time.

So, everybody remembers the duck incident at that Syncrude site where they landed on one of the tailings ponds. They got coated in bitumen, which is a terrible incident, of course, and made headlines around the world. I think the CEOs of all of the companies, both big and small, realize that their social license is only as good as the worst-performing member of the group. Because if somebody had an incident, they’re all, if you pardon the pun, tarred with the same brush.

And so, I think it became obvious to them that, you know, ‘look, we need to stop competing on this environmental technology. We need to start collaborating because we all need to get better faster. And doing it individually doesn’t make any sense.’ And in fact, I can even recall an anecdote that predated COSIA for the Oil Sands Tailings Consortium where before it was formed there was a whole bunch of work on some tailings treatment technology, some fairly novel tailings treatment technology, and much of it involved computation of fluid dynamics, which is a highly specialized form of engineering. And there’s a company in Vancouver that does that kind of work, both computational work plus they actually built physical models. And so at least three members had pretty much the same work going on in his shop. And he couldn’t, he had to cover up the pilot tests for the other companies while he was touring around the company that happened to be in town. And he mentioned, you know, ‘guys, this is crazy. Why don’t you guys get together and solve this together? Your behaviour doesn’t make any sense.’

And so, but that’s sort of what was happening prior to the formation of the Oil Sands Tailings Consortium and then prior to subsequently to COSIA. And then I’ll, I’ll probably close by saying that tailings is a great place to start because of course these are all oil and gas companies and you know, you typically don’t mine for oil and gas. In fact, the only place that you mine for oil and gas in the world is in Alberta. And so, it’s not an area where they’re going to feel competitive pressures because they don’t have mines anywhere else in the world. So, it was a safe place to start to share technology and then that tailings consortium formed the legal basis I think for COSIA.

Leighton: Okay, I see. So that kind-of answered my next question. I was going, I was just going to say, you know, how did COSIA really get off the ground? Is there anything kind-of more, more to that where there was a moment where, a project where you really knew, okay, well, this is for real now?

John: Well, I think the as I say, unlike other industry associations where you’ve kind-of got a charter that’s maybe two or three pages long, where everybody agrees in principle to do certain things. You know, COSIA was stood up with, I mean, my joint venture agreement — the water joint venture agreement — I think is 110 pages, so things got real in a hurry when you sat down and read these legal agreements and you went, ‘Well, these are like the members have agreed to obligations on themselves,’ right?

And so, because of how we stood up, it was pretty easy to see how it was going to unfold. That said, you know, you still have groups of individuals that most of them know each other but had never worked this way before. And so, legal agreement or not, some trust needs to be built. And so that always like all team building, that takes a bit of time. There’s no question about it. And so, but, you know, certainly in the water area, we got off to an auspicious start. And, you know, we had our first probably meeting in September of 2012, and by December we had our first budget for some technical projects that we had agreed on. So that all went pretty fast. But having the legal agreements in place to facilitate that made a big difference, no question about it.

Leighton: There’s a lot to talk about from there to the current day, but what are some of the highlights from your perspective, if you could just name a few?

John: Well, so I would start with, you know, the whole premise is to improve environmental performance. So, the reason you collaborate and you develop technology together and you share use rights for technology is so ultimately, environmental performance improves. And so obviously it’s important to measure that, to see if you are improving environmental performance, but perhaps you wouldn’t be surprised, but maybe you would be how difficult, even in a collaborative environment like this it is to get companies to agree on performance goals because everybody views performance goals differently. So, we had one member for sure who felt that performance goals had to be something they were virtually sure of meeting. And another member who thought the exact opposite, where if you reach for the stars and only get to the moon, you’ve done yourself a great service. And so, the cultural difference on how they viewed a goal, in spite of the fact that they were in this collaboration together, made it very, very difficult to do goal development.

But so, in terms of milestones, I think the water area was the first one to provide, produce sanctioned performance goals. In other words, improvement in water use in I think, those were finally approved in 2014 after like a year and a half of very, very steady work to come to some consensus among members. And so that was a big deal. I think certainly there’s a whole bunch of projects that have been launched in the last 10 years and the bigger ones happen to be at smaller groups of members.

But on the water side, certainly the biggest single one would be the Water Technology Development Centre, which is at Suncor’s Firebag site, and tests for most, it’s intended to test in-situ water treatment technologies. You can use it for some mining treatment technologies, but it’s for the in-situ sector and that’s about a $160 million capital project. And I don’t know what the spending is per year, like $10 million to $12 million a year to run all the tests that they run. So that was an idea that had been pitched prior to COSIA, but it became a reality during that tenure. So that’s certainly a big deal.

We did a whole bunch of projects on the mining side that ended up being very, very impactful. I would say some of the work that we funded with Mohamed Gamal, who does research on treatment of oil sands processed water, this is water that’s come in contact with oil sands ore and how to remove the organics. And that would be a good example. And certainly, work we’ve done with Bill Shotyk’s lab, his SWAMP, which stands for Soil, Water, Air, Manure and Peat. I think Swamp Lab at the University of Alberta has been instrumental at disambiguating natural versus anthropogenic inputs in the Athabasca River. And so, his main contribution is he has an ultra-high purity lab that’s a building within a building. And there’s no metal. There’s no metal in the lab because his lab can measure down to parts per trillion, which is Bill Shotyk, he stands in front of Lake Huron with a bucket of water and says that’s a part per trillion, a bucket of water in Lake Huron. That’s pretty low. And so, the issue is contamination of your samples.

And so, there’s no metal in the lab. And so, he’s been able to show that most of the trace elements that previous studies have said were coming from the oil sands and polluting the region are actually just dust from the roads because mining areas tend to be dusty. And so, what he’s shown is that these are actually if they are anthropogenic, it’s just dirt and it’s not bioavailable. And it’s what you would see in any river system that runs over rock and so previous studies had said that there was terrible pollution of these trace elements by the oil sands. And Bill has successfully disproved that theory.

And I’ve often said to Bill, you know, clearly all you have to do is look at one of these oil sands mines in particular and see that there’s going to be environmental impacts from an industrial scale of that size. But it’s very important that you’re fixing ones that are actually existing rather than fixing ones that don’t exist, but somebody thought they did. So, yeah, you want to be working on real problems, not ones that somebody thought were a problem, but just had the science wrong. So anyway, so those are kind of some big-ticket items, I think. I mean, I could probably talk at length on, on some others. I’d probably close by saying, you know, collaborations have also resulted in a major change in a flow sheet for a brand new in situ plant.

So, one of our members had received a technology license for a particular technology. They happened to be in the in situ sector. In this particular case, it’s called the seed to slurry evaporator. And so, they completely change the flow sheet that they were proposing for their new process, water treatment process, based on the information that was shared by one of the other members who had done some pilot testing and then commercialized the technology. And so that’s another great example of how, you know, somebody else does the work, tests the technology and then you get those results for free. And then you can make decisions quickly to change your approach and improve the performance of your plant. So, you know, which is what COSIA’s all about, right?

Leighton: Yeah, exactly. And so, with that, like, what do you think has been the secret to COSIA’s success over the past 10 years?

John: Well, you have to start by giving credit to the member companies for setting it up in the first place and assigning some really, really bright, passionate people to work there because if that doesn’t happen, it doesn’t matter what the legal agreements say, you’re not going to make much progress. I mean, that’s a fact. And so, you have to start by acknowledging that member companies were very serious about making a difference by standing up this organization in the first place and then assigning people that they felt would be more suited in a collaborative environment with other members. And so that’s made a huge difference.

And certainly, I’m very fortunate some of the members I have on my water steering committee were there right from day one. And so, so here we have 10 years together. So, we invariably have lots of laughs because of the long history we’ve had. So, we haven’t seen each other in of course two years. But that doesn’t stop us from still having some fun when we’re on some very serious and important topics. And so. So yeah, it starts with that, and certainly having the support from the top of the member organizations, we wouldn’t have been stood up in the first place without that.

And you know, having passionate and enthusiastic staff at COSIA makes a big difference as well because you, like all endeavours, you’re going to get some setbacks or you think if this is going to work and you think you’ve got consensus from members and then somebody puts up their hand and says, no, that’s not going to work. And you’re back to the drawing board. And that’s a fact of life and collaboration. And so, yeah, you need to have to be both passionate and enthusiastic about the work at COSIA because like, I guess all workplaces, you’re going to have moments of elation and moments of, ‘oh, crap.’

Leighton: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Now, I know you talked a lot about, you know, the impact COSIA’s had on the oil sands industry. You know, anything else you want to say about the impact it’s had or on the innovation ecosystem for the oil sands?

John: Yeah. So, I think it’s a fairly unique model. And so at least for the oil sands, it’s been, you know, if I look at the number of members who have had some role on one of the technical committees in COSIA, it’s probably upwards of 700 or 800. And so, there’s a, you know, unlike the early days where it tended just to be steering committee members. And so, it was a fairly small group of member company employees that were quite familiar with COSIA, that reach has expanded dramatically probably in the last five years. And so, I think that’s really made a difference as well. And so, they’re more comfortable with talking to each other than they would have been in the past. And so, because whenever you get a new person in, they’re always going, ‘well, am I supposed to be telling what I thought was a competitor this technical information?’ The answer is yes, absolutely. That’s what we’re all here for.

But until you’re used to it, yeah, it’s sometimes tough to get your head around it. And so, I think that’s made a big difference. So, I think the members are, you know, used to this collaboration and are going to make better use of it in future. It’s certainly, I think, like Joy Romero, who is one of the founding members at Canadian Natural for COSIA was also instrumental in founding CRIN and CRIN’s mandate is obviously quite different than COSIA’s but the objective is similar, you know, improved sustainability and environmental performance for the energy sector in Canada writ large, certainly in Alberta, in Canada writ large. And so, I think, and Joy was also involved in the tailings consortium. So, she’s been involved in all of those things. And so, there’s certainly been some other entities that have sprung up and certainly not a direct result of COSIA, but probably the existence of COSIA and the relative success we’ve had helped there, too. And then plus, all of the projects that have been completed, the information that’s been shared and the subsequent improvements that members have been able to make to their own facilities have, you add all that up and I think it’s a decent portfolio of accomplishment I would say.

Leighton: Yeah, yeah, I would agree. And we’ve talked a lot about the past achievements because you know, we wanted to focus on the 10-year anniversary. But I’ll ask, what are some big projects or initiatives COSIA is undertaking now or in the near future?

John: Well, so I’d say, you know, I can’t, obviously not in a position to speak for COSIA writ large because I only represent the water area. So, I’ll just stick to that, obviously. And, but certainly on the in-situ side of the business, we’ve got seven separate working groups that have been meeting now for, I think, two and a half years, I would say. And they’re definitely working extremely well now. And so, these are working groups that represent, so we split up the process facility.

So, surface facilities for in-situ plants in the oil sands are this kind-of four major unit operations. And so, we’ve got working groups that delve into the details of how to improve those unit operations. And so, one of them is de-oiling, the next one is water treatment. The next area is steam generation. And then there’s managing the waste as well. And so, and on top of that, we’ve got groups that look at process control and automation process monitoring, which mostly focused on online analyzers, then improving asset integrity because more reliable plants have a lower environmental footprint and then improving how effectively turnarounds go. And so all of those groups have you know, that’s certainly broadened the number of people that are involved, at least in the water side of the business for COSIA dramatically.

So, we’ve got virtually all new people on some of those committees and they’ve been working together for a little while. And are, I think, the sky’s the limit for the amount of information they’re able to share and they’re sharing information in a way that allows them to make improvements in their facilities in real-time or in near real-time. And so, someone tries something or somebody has a problem and they say, ‘hey, we have this, have you seen it and what did you do?’ And they can share that information openly and make improvements and changes quickly in real-time.

And I think that’s the reason we’ve spent a lot of time on that is because, you know, with the, until very recently, the sector which we had originally planned to grow quite rapidly at COSIA’s foundation had you know, the growth had really attenuated particularly for the in situ sector that basically no plants, no new plants being built. And so, the focus was ‘hey, if you’re not going to build new plants and then need new technology to deploy in your latest version plant, then you need to improve the environmental performance of existing facilities.

And to do that, you need technical experts in each area and you make these incremental improvements.’ And that’s been, so we’re right in the middle of doing that. And so that, I think has been very, very beneficial for members. It’s a good example and in some cases, we’ve just expanded work that we’ve had initiated prior. So, we’re still working with Bill Shotyk on a new scope for use of his SWAMP Lab and his expertise on the mining sector. And then there’s some, you know, some big projects where we’re expecting to see results sooner than later. So, Syncrude just had a big coke treatment pilot and they’re just compiling the results of that.

They finished it late last fall. And so, they’re just going through all the data now and they’ll be reporting on that and, you know, later this year. So, that’s pretty exciting. So, there’s, and I need to say, I could go on at length, but yeah, there are lots of exciting things going on both in the mining and in situ sector. The challenges for both sectors, which I probably didn’t touch on, are quite different. And so, the approaches and the focus, the research is different, too, but yeah, there’s progress in both areas going forward for sure.

Leighton: So, more exciting times. Another 10 years ahead at least, right?

John: Well, yes, although we, you know, there is, it’s perhaps, you know, there is a new organization called Pathways to Net Zero, which was announced last June. And so, the relationship between COSIA and Pathways is an active area of engagement, which is also very exciting in terms of the future of COSIA is our role within the Pathways to Net Zero initiative and it’s pretty much the same member companies involved in that as well. And so, that’s actually really exciting and new to me.

Leighton: So yeah. Okay, great. Well, well, thanks very much for being on the show and reflecting on the last 10 years. I almost said a few years, but it’s more than that. So, thanks very much. And we look forward to the next time with COSIA and what you guys have in store for us in the next few years.

John: Yeah. Looking forward to that, too. Anyways, it’s a real pleasure chatting with you and yeah, enjoy the rest of your day, Leighton.

Leighton: Thanks. Well, John Brogly is the director of the Water Environmental Priority Division at COSIA. And 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 whichever podcast you have. For more stories and interviews on Canada’s energy industry, check out our website, context.capp.ca. See you next time. Thanks.