PODCAST: Environmental leadership in Canada’s oil sands

Wes Jickling of Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance discusses their one-of-a-kind approach: using shared technologies to reduce GHG, air, water and land impacts across the industry.

While others criticize, Canadian oil sands producers have taken action: forming an unprecedented technology sharing alliance to push environmental action further than many realize.

Wes Jickling discusses how Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) invests billions in innovation to reduce GHG emissions and air, water and land impacts, and its revolutionary model that sees competitors collaborate and share their discoveries: so environmental improvements can benefit all.

Full transcript of podcast:

Tracy: Hello and welcome to the Energy Examined podcast. We like to explore all kinds of topics across Canada’s oil and natural gas industry. Thanks for tuning in and today I am happy to be having this conversation with Wes Jickling. He is the chief executive at COSIA – that’s Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance. Wes, thanks for joining us. Thanks for being on the podcast.

Wes: You’re welcome. Thank you for having me.

Tracy: You’re welcome. So, hey, for anyone who may not have heard of COSIA, why don’t we start with just a little bit of background. What is COSIA and how did it come about?

Wes: So, COSIA is the place that the oil sands companies come together to innovate and create new technologies and it’s all focused on environmental performance. You know, you have currently nine oil sands companies representing over 90 per cent of Canadian oil sands production. They share intellectual property, technology, technical information, their experts and so on. Really, it’s a place where they go faster, do more research, and get better outcomes on environmental research and environmental outcomes.

Tracy: It sounds like COSIA then, is kind of a unique model of investing in technology, but then sharing it with these other companies. So, how does that work?

Wes: It’s actually, I would say, the only one in the world, the model where competitors of this size and in this industry and in this scale get together and collaborate in this way, and what I mean by collaboration is sharing intellectual property, sharing technology, giving one another access to their sites and giving one another access to their labs. And really, it’s sharing in the costs and sharing in the risks, really to accelerate the R&D in their industry. And again, that’s all around environmental performance. You just don’t see that in other industries. We’re unaware of any other sector or group of competitors of this size collaborating in this way. And so, really exciting role, really exciting organization and we’re making great progress.

Tracy: Speaking of the role, your role, you’re relatively new at the helm of COSIA. So, what kind of grabbed your attention about joining this organization?

Wes: Well, I go back to the model, the COSIA model. Again, I came from, previously Innovation Saskatchewan, which is an organization entirely focused on innovation and finding solutions to public concerns and public challenges in Saskatchewan. So, I’m quite familiar with the, it kind of sounds corny, the “innovation landscape” or the ecosystem. And what really grabbed my attention about COSIA was again, it’s competitors collaborating, true open innovation, truly working together, really chasing down environmental performance. And that was the other side that was pretty important for me too and what really grabbed my attention was here were nine competitors, you know, since 2012 collaborating in a way unlike any other industry and it’s all about the performance – it’s all about the environmental performance. So, you put those two together: a world-leading model, you know, uniquely focused on environmental performance and it’s an extremely attractive role. So, that’s what got me here.

Tracy: So, I think in talking about the collaboration, the goal is the innovation, but it’s hard for people who aren’t as immersed in it as you to maybe really understand what that means. So, if we’re talking about the innovation that happens, give us a bit of a picture of where that’s playing out and who’s benefiting from what’s happening?

Wes: So, COSIA’s organized around four environmental priority areas – so that’s land, water, GHG and tailings. And so, there are some other areas around that as well but those are the four, kind of core focus areas for the technology and the research that we’re conducting together. And so, in each of those four areas you have some extremely smart people from each of our member companies sitting down together multiple times a month, multiple times a quarter really talking about, what are the knowledge gaps? What are the things we need to understand better? What are the things that we need to research a little bit more? And then also, they talk about technology gaps or technology challenges – what are the technologies that we need to improve? What are the technologies that we need to innovate together? And, they really go about tackling both of those sets of questions together, and again, it’s, you know, intellectual property is created and shared. In some cases, one of the nine companies will have a technology they’re using or a technology they’re developing and they’ll share that with the group so that everyone in the group can use or adapt or apply that solution in their operations, so that each of the companies don’t have to go out and replicate the same research or the same RD. So really, it’s around information sharing. It’s around close collaboration and kind of common purpose around environmental performance.

Tracy: Right, so, in terms of climate change, then, COSIA has a role to play. Can you give us some idea of what kind of action is happening? How is COSIA really involved in that space?

Wes: Well, great question. I think it’s first important to say that one of the four priority areas is greenhouse gases and that’s been the case since 2012 for COSIA and further back for the industry. What’s happening there and what action are we taking? I think maybe it’s important to say how we’ve been doing up until now. From 2009 to 2017, the oil sands sector has reduced their GHG intensity, the emissions per barrel by 21 per cent and that’s important to point out. And COSIA was one of the ways right? Sometimes companies do things outside of COSIA. Not everything happens through COSIA. We’re just one of the ways. COSIA was one of the ways that the companies were able to achieve a 21 per cent reduction over that period of time. But in Canada, we have this high expectation of ourselves when it comes to environmental performance and protection of the environment, so I guess from our point of view, it’s the next decade, it’s the next number of years that are most important when it comes to GHG performance, so we have a number of technologies under development right now in this area. There’s very rich discussions happening behind the scenes at COSIA between our shareholder companies and we have some really interesting technologies on our desks right now. I’ll just give you a couple of examples.

Tracy: Yeah, I was going to ask if you were okay getting into some specifics, so people have – get an understanding of it.

Wes: I’ll guess I’ll kind of throw out three examples. And there’s dozens, but the three I would like to talk about kind of they’re on a spectrum. One is rifle tubes, which is kind of an incremental innovation, it’s an incremental increase in steam efficiency at operations. Again, that was an innovation that can be incorporated into and members are working on together to lower energy demands, increase the efficiency of steam generation, so that’s kind of an incremental innovation. And a lot of what we do is around incremental innovations. But then you have some really kind of interesting innovations at the other end of the spectrum, which are really kind of getting into novel areas. Really quite interesting, exciting technologies and one of them which I’ll point to is thr XPRIZE. You’ve probably heard of the XPRIZE.

Tracy: Yeah, we actually, on this podcast we talked to Marcus Extavour about the XPRIZE.

Wes: Right, okay, so that’s a COSIA XPRIZE around carbon conversion, it’s the carbon XPRIZE. And so, in the southeast of Calgary, we have a natural gas plant. Not we, I mean, it’s a natural gas plant in the southeast of the city, but we have a test facility on the back of the gas plant where the five finalists or the five shortlisted finalists from the XPRIZE are currently going through and testing their technologies. They’re trying to show two things: what’s the maximum amount of carbon that you can take and convert into a maximum value product? The two metrics are the carbon capture, the volume utilized and secondly, the value of the product created, and so what’s really interesting there is you’re taking the waste product of CO2 and converting that into value. And that scenario we’re pretty excited about. And so, I was out there a couple of weeks ago and had a tour, there’s, I think, the five finalists, they’re working on, one of them is creating yoga mats, one of them is producing spirits like vodka, you know, carbon fibre and so on.

Tracy: It’s amazing technology to think that you can take CO2 emissions and somehow turn it into these other products – I mean to turn it into something that you can eat or to turn it into vodka, that’s crazy.

Wes: And I think we’re just scratching the surface there and, you know, I guess, COSIA, we’re proud that we’re the ones that – Canadian oil sands producers are the ones that are taking that step, really leading this innovation, creating incentives and this opportunity to really start delving into the area of carbon conversion. One last technology which I’ll just quickly mention is GHGSat and so this is going back a couple of years now where COSIA members, shareholders came together on what we would call a joint industry project and the project was to put a satellite in low Earth orbit to monitor fugitive emissions from oil sands facilities, oil sands assets in Fort McMurray. And this is actually a Canadian company out of Montreal as it turns out and there’s been a nice collaboration with them and we’re going to see two more satellites in the same project go up later this year. So, I think again, that’s a real testament to the extent to which and kind of the innovation and the technological lengths that we’re going to, to really get on top of the GHG environmental priority area for COSIA.

Tracy: We’ve talked a bit about some of the focus areas that COSIA has. Is there anything else in those areas that you would like to highlight for us?

Wes: Absolutely. So maybe I’ll just talk a little bit about our land priority area. It’s one of the priorities where all the companies are working together on, and they’re looking at things and doing research and developing practices, best practices to do things like preserve caribou habitat. To reclaim and regrow forests as quickly as possible. They’re developing, you know, some digital tools and guides for practitioners, folks who work onsite about how to protect the forest, the boreal forest and how to reclaim and one of the challenges, which we’ll talk about, is – or one of these innovation opportunities I should say – is what we call a zero seismic testing challenge. How can we get our seismic testing practices to the point where it’s having as close to zero impact in the boreal forest as possible? And this is one where, you know, the members have come together, we sort of scoured the globe for new technologies and best practices and we’re looking at that. We’ve found some shortlisted technologies, potential candidates, really looking at how do we really minimize the impact on the boreal forest where the Canadian oil sands producers are operating, so very exciting work and we’re pretty excited about that.

Tracy: Those are great stories to tell and I think part of that opportunity is telling those stories beyond our borders and getting that story out globally. And I heard that you recently presented to a UN group. So may just give us a little bit more about your role in doing those things and why it’s important for you to get out there and really be telling sort-of Canada’s energy story and innovation story.

Wes: Great question. I guess from our point of view, what COSIA’s doing and I’ve described what the approach is and how we go about the work, we sort of say internally, this is a very Canadian way of innovating. We’re sort of writing the book on this Canadian approach to innovation and what does that mean? Well, it means extreme collaboration, working together on a complex challenge. This is a multidimensional issue that we’re tackling, this business of GHG, significant GHG reductions, but we’re good at it, right? We’ve been doing this for a long time and I’m not just talking about COSIA. If you look back in Canada’s history, you look at the acid rain treaty. That was kind of shepherded and brought forward, again, a very complex issue. You look at the Great Lakes water quality treatments – these are cross border, very complex issues. Well, Canada’s leading that. You look at our environmental regulations. You look at all of these things and you see a country that has tackled very complex challenges, really to steward and look after the environment. And in our view, COSIA is really in that same vein where we are collaborating in the extreme, we are tackling together a very complex challenge for the sector and for the environment. And so, I think that’s a story that people really need to hear. And so, part of my job is to get out and do this to talk about the collaboration, the innovation, the technology, the progress that we’re making and take questions and have this conversation. And I feel like going up and meeting the UN association in Canada, it was an Edmonton group. They wanted to talk about the sustainable development goals of the UN, and I was happy to do so. And we talked about goal number six and goal number 13 and goal number 15, which is, you know, urgent action on climate change and land and looking after water sources, and so what’s the outcome of all of this collaboration and all of this working together? What you’re seeing is, and again, these are numbers that I’ve mentioned before, is a 21 per cent reduction in the emission intensity from oil sands production between 2009 and 2017. Industry experts or industry analysts are talking about in the next five years, the kinds of technologies that we’re bringing to bear through COSIA and individual companies is going to mean another 10 to 30 per cent. And these are technologies like carbon capture, natural gas decarbonization, you know, solvent extraction. There’s really exciting technologies ahead of us that are going to be deployed for the specific reason of lowering GHGs and improving environmental performance, and what’s interesting about that is, a lot of these technologies, a lot of these new approaches and best practices and even new technology has application beyond Canadian oil sands, right? When we make progress on a new environmental technology or a clean tech, often that has applications in other industries and so, I think once again, Canada’s leadership in environmental protection, which has been going on a long time, that continues with development of clean technologies and with broader application than just the oil sands so yeah, we’re super excited about telling that story, obviously excited about doing that work through COSIA, and you know, 2020 has already started and it’s a great year already and it’s going to continue.

Tracy: Those are great stories to tell and it sounds like COSIA has a lot coming up for 2020, so just as a reminder to people who want to get to your website, cosia.ca?

Wes: Yes, COSIA.ca. C-O-S-I-A dot C-A.

Tracy: And there’s a great blog on that website too, so I encourage people to go there and check out more information on what’s happening with COSIA, and to see what happens in 2020. Wes, I just want to thank you for taking the time to be on the podcast today. I enjoyed this conversation, so thank you very much.

Wes: Yes, thanks so much for having me .

Tracy: I want to thank people for tuning in and listening or watching today as well. Energy Examined publishes new podcasts on a regular basis, so I hope you will check back soon. We hope to see you then. Until then, have a great day.

In this article, Context speaks with:
  • WJ
    Wes Jickling Chief Executive, Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance