A series of above ground pipelines on a sunny day with blue sky in the background.

The making of CRIN, and a clean energy future for Canadian oil and gas

How a six-year journey to create a new collective of people and organizations matters to industry’s climate and cleantech ambitions.

If you have not heard of the Clean Resource Innovation Network or its acronym CRIN, it’s time you should. This group has become a major force behind cleantech development in this country.

Earlier this year, for instance, CRIN announced the finalists of its $80-million oil and gas technology competitions. What makes this especially significant is the size and scope of the investment.

Each of the companies identified for funding is focused on commercializing new technologies to solve some of the oil and gas industry’s biggest environmental challenges. With the help of the federal government’s Strategic Innovation Fund (SIF), CRIN is supporting 27 projects across a broad innovation spectrum. The portfolio includes everything from digital oil and gas technologies, to low emission fuels and products, to new ways to reduce industry’s land and water footprint and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

carbonix.lab work carbonix
Indigenous owned Ontario cleantech startup Carbonix is using carbon to remediate oil sands tailings. Photo courtesy Carbonix.

Read more: How oil sands can help the world reach net-zero emissions

It’s a substantial commitment, that when industry dollars are added in, amounts to an estimated total project value of $295 million. What is more, the companies identified for funding come from right across the country, making this a truly pan-Canadian initiative. Among the finalists:

  • Montreal-based cleantech firm KWI Polymers is partnering with Suncor in developing world-class technology for low emissions hydrogen from natural gas.
  • Carbonix, an Indigenous-owned company in Ontario, has created technology to produce an activated carbon product to remediate oil sands tailings.
  • Kathairos Solutions in Calgary has invented a simple but ingenious system that uses liquid nitrogen to power remote well sites, eliminating the venting of methane emissions.
  • Avestec Technologies in Burnaby, British Columbia, is pioneering the use of intelligent flying robots to inspect industrial facilities more safely and accurately.
  • And that is just a few examples on CRIN’s list of projects identified for funding.

So, who’s behind the competitions? Who exactly is CRIN?

Network of networks

Joy Romero, CRIN’s president and one of its founders, calls CRIN a “network of networks.” Through CRIN, she says, oil and gas producers are partnering with inventors, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and others to find real-world solutions to environmental challenges.

A headshot of Joy Romero, CRIN
CRIN president and co-founder Joy Romero believes collaboration key to accelerating cleantech innovation. Photo courtesy CRIN.

“Cleantech is about reducing our footprint. We want to connect the institutions across Canada that are addressing environmental challenges to ensure we have cleantech solutions in a short, accelerated time,” says Romero, executive advisor for innovation at Canadian Natural.

Read more: Taking on Fugitive Emissions

With more than 3,265 members and growing, CRIN is one of the largest collaborative initiatives of its kind, driving cleantech innovation across the country. And nowhere has this leadership been more visible than in these latest competitions, where CRIN and its organizers have invested a lot of effort.

Search for high-impact technologies

Over the last year, CRIN has sought to identify high-impact technologies through three large-scale competitions, each with unique focus areas, funding awards and timelines.

“What they have in common is the ability to advance solutions that will significantly improve environmental performance, help Canada meet climate change targets and provide economic benefits for Canadians,” Romero says.

Each competition has been run by an independent competition coordinator. Coordinators have included leading innovation-focused organizations like Emissions Reduction Alberta, the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto as well as Vancouver area-based Foresight Canada in collaboration with the Delphi Group.

Read more: PODCAST: How innovation can make cleaner natural gas and oil

“When CRIN went to market to find competition coordinators, we were keen to jump in to support the acceleration and adoption of market-ready clean technologies,” says Foresight CEO Jeanette Jackson, who has been a member of CRIN since 2020.

Headshot of Jeanette Jackson, Foresight CEO
Foresight CEO Jeanette Jackson says CRIN helps with their goal of acceleration the adoption of market-ready clean technologies. Photo courtesy Foresight Canada.

Over the last year, Foresight and the Delphi Group and other coordinators worked with CRIN staff, supported by volunteers, to solicit applications from innovator/oil and gas producer partnerships across the country. Expert subject matter teams assessed all project applications against published criteria and to ensure a clear pathway to commercialization and significant environmental benefits. Fairness monitors were engaged throughout to ensure the process was free from conflict of interest.

As a result of this effort, 27 projects were chosen from more than 140 applications across the three competitions. Each project involves partnerships between oil and gas producers and cleantech solution providers, with at least one small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) involved. In each case, government funding from the Strategic Innovation Fund comprised a portion of the total project funding to a maximum of 50 per cent, with industry, cleantech providers and other government funds contributing the balance of the total project cost.

“The government is providing some funding, and this investment is being leveraged to accelerate these projects,” says Glen McCrimmon, former innovation chief at Husky Energy (now Cenovus) and chair of CRIN’s technology enablement subcommittee.

Read more: Supporting Indigenous communities in the oil sands region

And now that the finalists have been announced, CRIN organizers and the oil and gas sector are expecting big results from the technologies. Early analysis from proponents suggests that the projects could result in a cumulative direct and indirect GHG emissions reduction of 119 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) by 2033. Other benefits include lowering industry’s land use intensity by some 62,000 hectares and water use intensity by 1.2 million megalitres.

“Canada is already well positioned when it comes to responsibly produced oil and natural gas. But what the commercialization of world-class cleantech through CRIN does is make our hydrocarbon production even cleaner, with the goal of making Canada the cleanest energy option on the planet,” McCrimmon says.

Headshot of Glen McCrimmon, CRIN
Glen McCrimmon, chair of CRIN’s technology enablement subcommittee believes cleantech innovation can help make Canada the cleanest energy option on the planet. Photo courtesy CRIN.

Adding to this impact, many of the selected technologies, once commercialized, can be deployed not only in the oil and gas industry but also by steel and cement producers and other industries at home and around the world.

Furthermore, CRIN and its partners see the investments also providing an important boost to the country’s cleantech sector.

“We have the cleantech sector looking at CRIN and now seeing the oil and gas sector as a potential opportunity to launch their technologies. That’s a huge opportunity,” says Ginny Flood, CRIN’s chair and a past vice president of government relations at Suncor.

Jackson agrees, saying: “When a collective like CRIN puts forward these technology challenges, it says they’re committed to collaboration and to funding the future success of new cleantech ventures.”

Read more: Steve Froehler looks to eliminate oilfield emissions with revolutionary solar-powered technology

The technology challenges are the biggest initiatives to be led by CRIN, which has been steadily evolving as a catalyst for clean energy innovation, ever since its start six years ago.

Ambitious vision for CRIN started early

In 2016, CRIN was formed, largely with contributions from major oil and gas producers like Canadian Natural, Cenovus Energy, ConocoPhillips Canada, Husky, Imperial Oil, MEG Energy and Suncor. In addition, other institutions and organizations—including the University of Calgary, Alberta Innovates, Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada (PTAC), Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) and the Business Development Bank (BDC)—were at the table from the beginning. Back then, it was run by a handful of volunteers. Its initial membership was made up of a smaller number of industry and innovation ecosystem supporters.

A series of above ground pipelines on a sunny day with blue sky in the background.
Burnaby-based Avestec Technologies was identified to receive CRIN funding to get their drone technologies to market. Photo courtesy Avestec.

But even from the start, CRIN sought to be something different. The aim would be to create a national network to position Canada as the leader of clean hydrocarbons, from source to end use.

“CRIN was not intended to duplicate the work being done by other organizations. We instead wanted to be an umbrella organization that could be transparent about what our industry’s gaps and opportunities are and provide a platform where people can work to overcome those challenges,” Romero says.

Read more: What is the Clean Resources Innovation Network, or CRIN?

At first, there were challenges for the newly launched CRIN. Romero, Flood and other volunteers traveled to Ottawa in these early days to create awareness about the network among government decision-makers. When a bid in 2017 to be included as a finalist in the federal government’s $950-million super cluster program was unsuccessful, the CRIN volunteers refocused.

“All of the work we had done to prepare our supercluster submission allowed CRIN to become more crystal focused as a group. We focused on creating stronger industry pull for what we were doing,” Flood says.

To do that, the group committed to work even harder to build the CRIN network. They invited more groups across the country to join the initiative. They also strengthened CRIN’s governance structure, establishing a steering committee with senior executives from a broader range of sectors, including federal and provincial governments.

This effort would pay off.

The group’s reach was growing rapidly. By 2019, its membership totaled 430. This included national organizations like Natural Resources Canada and the National Research Council, as well as major academic institutions like McMaster University and the University of Alberta.

Read more: CRIN opens cleantech doors for young professionals

In turn, CRIN’s profile was increasing in government circles. When later in 2019 the network gathered cleantech entrepreneurs to explain their technologies and outline their needs to government policymakers in Ottawa, this time CRIN organizers got a different response.

Headshot of Ginny Flood, CRIN
CRIN chair Ginny Flood says cleantech companies, government see the potential in developing technologies for Canadian oil and gas companies.

“Through our steering committee meetings, government leaders were starting to understand the work we were doing and see the potential for CRIN to make a difference,” Flood says.

In March 2019, the federal government set aside $100 million in its budget over the next four years to support CRIN, through the Strategic Innovation Fund. The goal would be to accelerate technology development and support innovators in bringing “transformational solutions” to industry challenges. A total of $80 million would be set aside for CRIN competitions that would accelerate clean technology commercialization. At the same time, federal government officials tasked the group with identifying technologies that could in total contribute to 100 million tonnes CO2e in GHG reductions.

“When they asked for that goal, we were confident we could achieve that goal and decided to move forward. And since then, we’ve been thrilled with how successful our competitions have been in funding a portfolio of technologies that will collectively exceed that goal,” Romero says.

CRIN was on its way to becoming a force for clean oil and gas energy development in Canada.

“The work never finishes”

Today this role is increasingly recognized by Canada’s leaders. In a January news release to announce new technologies identified for funding by CRIN competitions, François-Philippe Champagne, the federal minister of innovation, science and industry, is quoted as saying, “To build a healthier environment and healthier economy, we are pleased to have CRIN as a partner to contribute to reaching our 2030 GHG targets. By seeking out projects that advance innovation and clean technologies across the country, CRIN supports long-term economic growth, helps create jobs, fosters innovation and helps Canada meet its emissions reduction targets.”

Certainly, over time the network has become a go-to space for industry groups, technology developers, non-profits, government leaders and others looking to facilitate new clean technology development in Canada. In late 2020, for instance, over 60 technology and research leaders from Natural Resources Canada and CRIN participated in a virtual event to discuss ways to work together to benefit clean technology development across Canada’s oil and gas sector. More recently, CRIN has partnered with Foresight to host a series of online events to connect oil and gas producers with cleantech ventures involved in pre-commercial hydrogen and carbon capture technologies.

Read more: What is carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS)?

“CRIN’s ability to be open and bring stakeholders together and create opportunities for projects, that’s been important. It shows the industry is serious about evolving,” Jackson says.

In talking to CRIN volunteers, you get the sense they’re serious about evolving the network and growing its role even further.

Now that the competitions are finished, CRIN organizers are already turning their attention to the next stage. They’re working to find ways to support the more than 100 additional projects identified through the competitions. They’re reaching out to strengthen relationships with different industry associations in the cement, steelmaking, agricultural and power production sectors. And through the young professionals in energy groups across Canada, they’re working to create greater awareness of clean technology innovation.

As Romero sums up: “The work never finishes. It’s definitely ambitious. At CRIN, we all share a passion around a desire for a clean energy future.”