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Cécile Siewe, director general of CanmetENERGY Devon. Photo by Jason Franson.

Innovation trends in oil and natural gas: Cécile Siewe

Director general of NRCan's CanmetENERGY Devon helps lead the charge on clean energy research for oil sands.

Few people are as qualified to speak about energy matters as Dr. Cécile Siewe, director general of CanmetENERGY Devon, a national lab within Natural Resources Canada. She oversees one of the country’s top facilities focused on clean energy research for oil sands. As a senior research executive, she and members of her organization are regularly called on to advise government officials on clean technology issues. Before joining government, she worked in industry (as a technology manager at Shell Canada) and in academia. Context recently spoke to Siewe to get her insights on industry’s progress on innovation, and what still needs to be done.

Q: What should we understand about the importance of innovation to the industry?

A: One of the things to recognize is the oil sands resource we have in Canada is very challenging to develop, compared to the more conventional resources around the world. The bitumen is mixed with sand and clays. It’s highly viscous due to a larger portion of high-boiling components. So, it can be really challenging to produce and process.

Industry has had to constantly come up with new ideas to improve bitumen production from oil sands. For example the concept of hydrotransport, which makes it possible to effect a degree of conditioning of the ore while it’s being pumped along a pipeline as a slurry, or the steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) technology that’s used to recover bitumen too deep for mining. These are just a couple of the early but revolutionary innovations in the industry. And industry continues to invest in innovation, for example, spending more than $1.3 billion each year on R&D to improve environmental performance.

Q: Environmental innovation and improvements to reduce costs seem to be two major themes in the industry. Can you speak to this?

A: Today we need to be even more conscious and deliberate in how we produce this resource. That includes producing it in a way that addresses climate change concerns. It’s going to take a lot of innovation to decarbonize our oil and natural gas and reduce emissions to the atmosphere. At the same time, we need to do this in an economically feasible way. Again, innovation is the only thing that will make it possible for Canada to produce our resource sustainably while remaining competitive.

Q: Can you give me an example?

A: Often much of our innovation work in industry and research agencies is aimed at creating new efficiencies and reducing the number of process steps. We think of it as system integration— in simple terms, this means looking at how we can integrate processes to get a better outcome and a lower footprint. For example, instead of letting hot process water cool at one part of the process cycle, we see if the heat can be captured and redirected that a different part of the production process that requires heat. In this way, we’re integrating heat efficiencies, saving fuel and releasing fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Now this greatly simplifies the degree of innovation involved, but you get the idea.

Q: What are some of trends you see when it comes to innovation in the industry?

A: One is responsiveness to climate change concerns. As a sector, we’re looking for opportunities—such as heat integration—to make our production systems more energy efficient so we generate fewer emissions into the atmosphere.

"There is a real willingness and genuine interest in the industry to pull together and find the solutions that are needed to make oil and natural gas a cleaner resource."

Another is the move toward greater collaboration in the oil sands. There’s a recognition now that we have to get interested stakeholders working together in the same space, if we are going to achieve better results faster . An excellent example has been the formation of the Clean Resource Innovation Network (CRIN). Here, industry, governments, research institutions and others are coming together to create a roadmap for producing clean hydrocarbon energy.

C├ęcile Siewe, director general of CanmetENERGY Devon sees innovation as a way to decarbonize oil and natural gas and reduce emissions. Photo by Jason Dziver.

At the international level, there’s also been the emergence of Mission Innovation, which came out of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. This has committed 22 different countries, including Canada, to take action to double government investment in clean energy R&D over five years. This is driving energy innovation and collaboration at a larger global scale.

Q: What are some of the bright spots you see in terms of these trends?

A: In some ways, the stars are very aligned when it comes to advancing innovation in the energy sector than some others. There is a real willingness and genuine interest in the industry to pull together and find the solutions that are needed to make oil and natural gas a cleaner resource. An example of this is the Generation Energy initiative, launched by the federal government in 2017 as a nation-wide dialogue inviting Canadians to share their vision of what a low-carbon future would look like for Canada. After hearing from over 380,00 Canadians, the campaign identified four pillars – wasting less energy, switching to clean power, using more renewable fuels, and producing cleaner oil and gas.

"Great ideas and technologies can die when they reach the commercialization stage...To ensure better outcomes, technology developers need to think sooner and more explicitly about commercial readiness."

Q: What’s required to accelerate innovation?

A: Up until now, in the innovation ecosystem, the focus has largely been on improving the readiness levels of different technologies from idea to testing. But that’s not enough. Great ideas and technologies can die when they reach the commercialization stage - before they can be launched into the real world.

To ensure better outcomes, technology developers need to think sooner and more explicitly about commercial readiness: What could commercialization look like? What kinds of investments are required? What are the underlying market trends to consider? We need to think about this pathway hand-in-hand with technology development. Doing so could significantly change the way industry approaches innovation and technology development.